I am behind the wheel of a 1969 Oldsmobile Delta 88. I am on an endless road; no bend as far back as I can remember; no bend as far as the eye can see or the mind can imagine; just one lane, so nothing ever passes me from behind, or chugging down the opposite direction. Makes for the kind of mindless driving I associate mentally with I-5 between the Harris Ranch and the Grapevine; high desert wasteland driving; no speed seeming any different from any others; just a dim apprehension of forward motion; except I realize that I am not on the I-5 since there’s not even a turn-off or an occasional oil pump way out in the haze.
I take a deep drag on a dead smoke; the cigarette fizzling like lukewarm soda pop that had been poured a week ago; not enough smoldering to generate a warm cloud of poison down my throat. I raise this dead smoke to my lips just about every minute or so, but at this rate I am not going to develop lung cancer for another three hundred years. I cannot remember the last time I had to open the glove compartment to retrieve a cigarette and a lighter. Perhaps this is my one and only smoke and will be still when finally everything just fades to black.
Misplaced optimism, I correct myself, ‘cause the world is not going to be fading to black, not in the next few minutes, not in a million years. The sky has been that dark purple blue; just after sunset, when those old and tired sunrays have yet to slide down the horizon with the ball of fire, but do not have enough kinetic life in them to inspire any warmth out from the listless twilight; as long as I can remember; maybe forever; surely the duration of my time on this road.
I may have rolled down my window, but I cannot really tell. The air is so still outside that, no matter my lead foot, I feel not the smallest breeze against my left cheek. There is no life in that air; nothing, really, to distinguish it from stale and heavy embalming fluid in a long dead corpse; not even a hint of dirty fog, when a pair of nostrils happens to press upon a blank mirror and to exhale.
There is a whiskey flask beneath my seat; pretty brazen on my part, if in the back of my mind I thought that there was any possibility of a cop up yonder waiting to haul me in on a DUI; but it is as dead as my smoke. I just know that I could sip at it from now until the Second Coming and never feel so much as the light buzz that as an adolescent punk I used to get when downing a stale Coors.
Way back then that light buzz had been something; a vulgar gesture just because my teetotaler father would have been aghast to know that I had snuck out from my Bible studies to share a can of piss fizz with a group of boys inside of an abandoned barn; a wild bronco skip in the heart from being naughty; a sly gleam in my eye later that same night while pretending to kneel beside my bed in soulful prayer; but now, well into my receding hairline and solid paunch, it is at best a flicker of disorientation in my graying mind, and then a dim haze that is no different from the twilight all around me. Even if I could acquire the light buzz, I am pretty sure that it would not matter out here on the endless stretch.
At least the radio works on my cash-for-clunker; but it is just impossible to pick up a station this far from the beaten track, unless I want to listen to an eternal loop of reruns of Coast to Coast AM; not such a bad prospect, if indeed that loop included episodes from the Art Bell years; but as they’re all from the George Noory years, I suspect that a horned devil in a cramped editing room on his own decided what episodes to include in the loop. I practically can hear the Beelzebub radio tech snickering his scales off as George Noory forever asks the same half a dozen questions of each of his guests, no matter really the topic or the occasion. The devil can smell the brain cells fizzling out there in that Great American Desert, as lonely drivers like myself have no where else to turn for an escape from the asphalt crunch on their tires, and he realizes that it is simply a matter of time before this Noory Loop reduces every man to a drooling zombie, or an Obama voter, which of course is much the same thing in the devil’s mind.
I decide not to bother. If I really want the Coast to Coast AM experience for a while, then I can just talk to myself; mimicking the tired, simian grunts of the host; and then responding in the voice of a sexless housewife, a trucker, or a hillbilly on speed. I have a knack for voices and can entertain myself just fine when the boredom creeps in and takes a hold of what little is left of my sanity.
I see a sign up ahead. It is the same sign I see every million miles or so, I reckon; not much to read but at least a break from a flat desert landscape that is not even broken by an occasional weed patch; and so I drag my worn eyes to the white block script centered on a black background. No More Time, it reads.
No more time, I mumble, as I swoosh passed the sign and watch it vanish altogether in my rearview mirror. What a crock. I have nothing but time on this road; an eternal sunset to think about the past; a road with no speed limits and detours; and a fuel gauge always marked full, no matter how far I may ride this bitch. So what kind of mental fuck game are they trying to play on me anyway?
I am not sure who they are. Surely there are no speed traps on this road; no drones flying overhead to make sure that I am abiding by the rules; not even a Nervous Nellie observing me from within a shadow off the side of the highway and then phoning in a report to an unseen police station. I am alone in a desert wasteland apparently fashioned by the Hand of God for no one else but myself, and that will not change even as I creep up to the last of the horizons veiled by the still heat wave up ahead. When I fall off of this flat earth and into the void, I shall be as absolutely alone then as I have been for as long as I can remember.
Except I know that they are out there; observing me; laughing at me, as the occasion merits; and I know that I have encountered them on this very road that now seems to be devoid of anyone else, but my Delta 88 and my sick mind.
I touch the lower back of my head with my right hand. There is a jagged flap of skin there hanging loosely over the occipital bone. If there had been any life at all in the air flowing through my driver’s side window, then it would be a jagged flap of skin fluttering up to the crown of my head and down to my neck.
Instead, it just drapes limply down the back of my head; a closed pocket on the exterior of a burlap sack; and slowly stitches back into the remainder of my skin on account of the sweat and the dried blood plastered over the wound.
There is no pain back there, but I have a vague impression somewhere in the back of my mind that there had been pain; cold and remorseless; severe to the point of robbing me of my consciousness and leaving me totally vulnerable; indeed, no more than an open sore; to whatever they wanted to do to me then.
There is no wet blood back there, but I have a vague impression that my backside had been drenched by a blood waterfall; a crimson spray out from the skin flap, and then a languid gurgle down my back and into my trousers; and an assortment of brain bits sticking to the sweat just beneath my shoulder blades.
And when I had been a bloody mess, they had been able to inflict on me the most unspeakable of acts; a savage debauchery that escapes my tired mind now, but that must have been in total variance with the straightforwardness of this road and the stillness of this time; a vicious crime just beneath the surface of the sleep of eternal peace that then questions the deadness of a dead world.
Perhaps I need to believe that they are out there, because the conscious acknowledgment of absolute loneliness cannot but tear apart the last sinews of a sane mind. Perhaps I am imagining that my wound had been worse in a vague and distant past so as to avoid the implication of always having had the wound I have now. There is a hope in change; a sense that if matters had been so much worse in the past, then they could be so much better in the future; a faith that says that as there had been bends in this road in the distant and the near past, so will this road eventually come to an end at a cliff or a sand dune someplace.
And if there is hope, then there is still time, regardless of what the road sign says; a future in which that hope may be fully realized; a time to come, as well as a time to remember. Maybe there is nothing more at play here than my own stubborn willpower; the kind of irascible insistence that climbs the highest mountain and installs gas chambers in concentration camps; but I choose to see hope even in a desert wasteland that stretches out from me in every direction, and I choose to think that there is a better future even in an everlasting sunset.
As if to corroborate what I am thinking right now, I see a light twinkle in the distance. It is no more than a subtle shift in the haze, but it stands out very strongly as the only thing moving in a world otherwise as dead as a painting set up in a dark and abandoned attic. It is the one diamond in the rough; and, from what I can make out, it is located alongside the road for no other purpose than to inspire a lift in my worn heart and a semblance of a hopeful grin on my face.
I reach this subtle shift in the haze within a few minutes. It is a motel; a single wing of rooms adjacent to an empty gravel parking lot; a high, neon sign that features a Gerber Baby with angelic wings sleeping on a feather down, and that says: Eternal Rest Motel, Vacancy, No Pets, No Room Service, No Internet.
I pull off the highway and park my Delta 88 next to the front office door.
I step out from my car. The air is so bland and still it feels like a sheet of sticky paper that at once drapes my skin and presses into my pores; a lukewarm blanket wrapped just a bit more snug with every breath I take; an atmosphere that I can breathe, but that at the same time seems poisonous and alien to me, like I imagine to be the sensation of a hypothetical astronaut on Mars removing his helmet and inhaling as much of the air as he can pull into his lungs. As air is life, I may deduce only that, for me, life is a slow and torturous act of suicide; a life not lived for the future, but as necessary to wind everything down to that singular moment when the eyes clench and the index finger pulls on the trigger of an antique Colt Python 357; a life that compresses the colors and the feeling out from the flesh, until there is nothing left but a gray haze that they can toss into an open grave along the side of the road and expose to that eternal sunset that hangs over everything in this world like a burial pall. The air intimates the end; setting the stage onto which the man steps on cue in order to take his life before their glaring eyes; and, indeed, compelling his step if he lingers too long backstage, lest they leave the theater not receiving value for their filthy lucre.
Of course, I am always drowning in this dead air; but the sense that I am suffocating is that much more intense for me when I am in the open air. It is as if the wide-open sky is a cramped closet, while the inside of an automobile or a motel room is an open field. I try not to think how illogical this is, because I am afraid that that will push what is left of my sane mind over the unmarked edge.
I look down at my right side and observe that I am carrying a briefcase. I do not recall reaching for it in the backseat. I do not even recall it being in the backseat. It is as if I have been carrying around that cursed briefcase as long as I have been a sojourner on these roads, though again I ignore how that is not at all compatible with having been a two-handed driver in this same span of time.
There is a picture of the same sleeping Gerber Baby Angel in the bottom right corner of the front office window; a pleasant reminder in case a sojourner forgets where he has parked his wheels, I guess; and a sign above the door that reads: Don’t Stay Long. Clean Up After Your Own Mess. Wipe Your Dusty Shoes.
Lucky they’re leaving the light on for me, I mutter in homage to Motel 6.
I heard that, a gruff codger barks from inside the front office. I heard all that you said, and I want you to know that I’m logging it now even as we speak.
We are not now speaking to one another; I bark back at the cranky coot.
It’s all going in the book, he continues, either not hearing or ignoring my hostile response. Ol’ Pete sends one of his scribes every now and then to check my log, and I intend to get a perfect report. So just know that I’m logging it all down, every last syllable and breath, ‘cause Ol’ Pete demands complete logs in the boondocks as much as he does from the stately mansions nearer to the pink pearly gates. Ol’ Pete is the Rock o’ Heaven. So he’s not the kind to let his job just slide by the wayside, and that means he expects as much from his minions.
So you’re calling yourself a minion? I ask the unseen old man derisively.
Better to be a butler in the House of the Lord, than a gentleman in Hell, the old man responds in the rote manner of a boy reciting his catechism before the scowling nuns. I’m a small player. But I’ve got my pension lined up for me; shares in the New Jerusalem that will be paying rich dividends as soon as those angelic trumpets blare; and, in the meantime, Ol’ Pete doles out my board, my medical, and two-weeks leave every other year. Not a bad compensation, when all he asks of me is to hand out the keys and to keep a log on the sad sacks that stop here every now and then. Not bad at all, when you consider the goody two shoes soul savers sent down to kindle faith and to mend hearts get no more pay than a hack like me. It pays to be hired into the harvest at the eleventh hour, I may tell you. It pays rich and creamy where the sun don’t shine. And no matter what they may say, there’s no sin in taking it in the rear from the Lord Himself.
I am taken aback by the allusion; but, even more so, I am panicking from how the wide-open sky seems to be barreling upon me. I wonder if it is possible for the dead to die and decide that I really do not want to find out at this time.
I push the door open. It is extremely heavy, or I am losing my strength at an alarming rate of deterioration; but, either way, I am totally out of breath as I lean against the front office counter; my briefcase still hanging like a ball and chain from my right hand; my head slumping as if a lead ball into my left palm.
The gruff codger is a wrinkled prune face with a crew cut and red eyes.
His lips seem to be permanently pressed into a snarl, and it is when I see how they curl into his leathery skin that I realize that I have seen this man long ago. I cannot quite place it, though, because my mind is forever stuck in a past that is long since dead; what I guess is way down this same highway, but in the opposite direction of where I can drive on that single lane of asphalt out there; and so, in its recollection, the past is all jumbled together without that hope in the future that might give it its proper perspective. The most poignant persons or events are recalled on the same level as the most innocuous; and, as a result of that forced equality in all things big and small, everything swims in my mind as if cooked in the same stew. I sense that it would be better to forget my past totally, than to be a keeper of a past that is very much dead, but never buried.
But I have not forgotten. And not knowing is eating away at my bowels.
Just arrived in time, I reckon, the old man says as pleasantly as he can.
That makes no sense, I think. I have all the time in the world after all.
The old man pushes the registration book in front of me. It is an antique, spiral notebook enamored on the sides of each lined page with heavenly clouds and angelic wings. No one has ever signed the book; and the pages look as crisp as if just removed from an air-tight wrapping; and yet it seems to be as ancient as time; a book fashioned from out of the void and left in this remote corner of death for no other signature than mine. The same may be said of the long quill and black ink beside the book; unmoved by another hand; ancient as the years.
I set out to sign my name with my right hand, but I simply cannot muster the will to drop the briefcase by my side. I do not know what I fear may happen to it. There is not a potential thief within eternity of where I am leaning at this moment; but, regardless, my fingers will not loosen their grip from that leather handle no matter how many mental commands and threats I send over to them.
The old man notices and smiles. His red eyes seem to sparkle as embers.
That’s okay, he says in the manner of a Kindergarten teacher wiping the boo-boo away. I’ll keep a close eye on it, as you render me your John Hancock.
And with that, I am able to drop the briefcase by my side and to dip the quill in the ink. I have never felt more liberated than as I leaned into the book.
Except that I have no clue what to write on the line. My name is as much a part of the mental muddle that I am able to retrieve from the past as another carrot or potato thrown into the stew. I could be as much a John Hancock as an Olivia Newton-John; all fragments overcooked in the grime; no one of them any more distinctive from myself as I am from my own mind, so that I am as much a god over the life that I had lived as a slave of the lives lived in proximity to me.
I sign my name John Hancock and try my best to emulate his loopy style.
The old man takes a long look at my signature and then chuckles from an old memory that he has yet to share with me. He resembles an evil leprechaun; wringing his little hands over his pot of gold; deliciously savoring in his mind an ugly bout of torture that he is going to inflict on his limey prisoner after a short shake in the Irish green. He is the brutal cog in the wheel that begins his tenure by focusing sunlight through a magnifying glass at helpless ants, graduates to a desk job at Auschwitz, and transfers to a motel somewhere south of Bakersfield that the other cogs do not want. He is a company man, and he enjoys his perks.
And his favorite perk of all is to look into the eyes of his latest customer; smile with the toothy charm of the devil; and know something the sad sack of a man in front of him cannot even guess in a million years. It is as close as he can get to shoving the Boss off of his throne and sitting on the padded seat a while.
You signed your name as John Hancock, the old man teases. But I read it by the eyes of eternal truth, and my eyes say that your name is Long Hairs; no, even more precisely, Hippie Long Hairs who thought he could hump my hunnie; and I gotta say I’m mighty happy to see you again after all these bustling years.
I remember wearing my hair filthy and long; the strands slithering all the way down the backside of my peace symbol T-shirt; the odor of unwashed hairs turning the noses of rednecks used to digging their boots into shit all afternoon.
I remember humping his hunnie; a red bouffant on a pretty enough face, before I smashed my knee against her nose and mouth on the night her old man tried to blast me all the way to the Second Coming with his shotgun; and a pair of balloons barely contained by a red dress that draped everything and nothing.
And I remember him. He is not just an old man. He is surely the Old Man.
He had been the infamous proprietor of an eyesore in the outskirts of my hometown called the Texaco Gas and Grill, an A frame on the side of a highway that had served as a kind of safe house for KKK kooks on the run from the Feds; and Holy Rollers looking to rid the town of Cat’licks and Hindus, as they tended to lump them together; and an occasional pedophile searching for a hole of raw honey in which to dip his wick. He had kept to himself, but his wife had been a real whistle and catcall kind of gal; a looker with a butt that just never ended, even on a Sunday morning; and a flirt with a special penchant for deflowering a certain nineteen-year-old farm boy not yet baptized in the swamps of Vietnam.
I had met him only once; the night I had disfigured his hussy of a hunnie, when I had happened to stumble backwards from my tired and worn out middle aged years to those last few hours before leaving for boot camp; but his sinister eyes and snarling lips (and of course the muzzle of his shotgun) had remained a fixture in my mind, until the long and straight highway out there had turned all of my past into a sunset haze. I had forgotten how much I first feared him, and then loathed him, because there is just too much vitality in those sick emotions for a dead man to store in his still heart; and then I had lost his life altogether.
But now it all rushes back into my mind; the memory separated out from the rest of the muddled images back there and given a spotlight all its own; the intensity reminiscent of the wind that still blows strong far back in the opposite direction on this same highway; the reality of what had occurred between us so many years ago standing in stark contrast to the endless expanse and lukewarm twilight that prevails here, so that my dead life now seems a dream in relation.
I am not afraid of him. I do not even dislike him any more than when we first exchanged insults while on opposite sides of the door. I am just speechless to be experiencing once more a focused and clear memory of a poignant person and event in my life, and I am wondering how a vicious madman like this guy in fact gets hired by Ol’ Pete himself to oversee one of his franchises on the road.
I guess the Texaco Gas and Grill is “prior experience;” but his “customer service,” especially towards any one of the darker races that might just happen to stagger into his den of hate and greasy burgers, had left much to be desired.
So do you get very many lodgers this far out in the boondocks? I ask, not really wanting to converse with the Old Man, but at the same time not wanting to step away from the sublime experience of a focused and clear memory of my own past. I’ve been driving forever, and I can’t recall the last time I observed a car on the road other than my own.
Not much different than my old place, the Old Man reflects. ‘Course it’s a lot better if only the best kind of people show up. I’ve never been interested, shall we say, in handing over a blanket and a bar of soap to the unwashed scum out there; the hippies and the beatniks; the fairies with their novel ideas about how and where to scrub with their Irish Spring; the cursed, watermelon loving…
He catches himself; his right palm clenching his lips; his eyes rolling over to an official looking sign on the wall to his left; and his face so tensed that the red embers turn into purple sparklers, shooting out flames that land on both his cheeks as smoldering purple charcoals, and radiating the undying hatred that is the heart of a man no longer allowed to indulge his peculiar biases. He holds so near and dear in his chest the Rebel Yell, not of Confederates bitch slapping an untested and overconfident Union Army at the First Battle of Bull Run, but of a wolf pack of day late and a dollar short KKK kooks forced by their outlaw status into hiding their faces behind sheets and riding in the dead of night; really, the Rebel Yell of futile resistance; the rage of losers who have yet to accept that in fact the battlefield has been swept up and the passions of the people refocused in another direction. He is a beaten man; his anger just making his wounds that much more inflamed; his frustration burning away his dead skin one tiny purple charcoal at a time; his power no more than the pungent odor of spent matches, rotten eggs twitching a nose, or corpses farting beneath an unforgiving red sun.
I follow his defeated gaze to the official looking sign. There is an artist’s rendition of Saint Peter sitting at his high desk before the pink pearly gates; his beard long and scraggly in the fashion of Merlin the Magician; his old coot body draped by a wizard’s hat and robe that is primordial pagan in every respect but for the cross on his chest; and his right index finger waving tsk-tsk at the public in a manner that is at once effeminate and all powerful. Saint Peter exhibits all of the ease of a bureaucratic hack who knows that he need not exert himself in order to get what he wants, since he is so In Like Flynn with the Man Upstairs. I am reminded of a political cartoon shortly after the Franco-Prussian War where a flippant Kaiser Wilhelm is leaning on the rail of the Ship of State and nodding lazily towards the hulking, scowling Bismarck, who is stomping down a plank to his political oblivion. There is a moral laxity in victory; the same ease as is seen in the middling management at Big Blue back in the day, when the very idea of being defeated in the marketplace seems as remote as a lusciously pig elephant descending from on high and introducing a new and better operating system for the general public; and, apparently, that is as true where the angels strum gold harps as where the victors have been able to sweep aside all the messy details.
Beneath this image, the sign reads in bold, red letters that call to mind a virile Uncle Sam declaring I Want You to a whole generation of boys who would wind up bayoneted and gassed in muddy trenches: Ol’ Pete Says…Do not say or think a racist word while on this work clock…Remember, there is no I in TEAM.
The work clock is on the same wall as the official looking sign. There is a mathematical infinity symbol in place of each of the numbers from 1 to 12. The long and the short hands are spinning in opposite directions, like the hands of a clock in Alice’s Wonderland that is used also as a battery-operated fan during a Very Merry Unbirthday Celebration. The message is clear enough: as this shift is never going to end, the stiff at the conveyor belt is advised to give up his loony dream of a proletariat revolution and to soldier on mindlessly for the long haul.
And so the Old Man has been given a desk and a pension in the sprawling bureaucracy euphemistically known as the afterlife; but, in turn, he has had to give up his racism, if not in his heart, then at least in his conscious mind and in his outward words and actions. His is the despair of a dead smoker whose lungs have been made clean and robust; the lining as fair as the blessed countenance of an angel; the respiratory function as strong as a hurricane wind; but who has nothing but contempt for the loss of his smoker’s cough and green phlegm. The good life cannot but be hell for a man who had not been able to experience an orgasm without first recalling the sound of a coon choking at the end of a rope.
Where you about to use a colorful metaphor? I ask the Old Man, grinning cheekily, and enjoying every second of his discomfort. Cross the line; lose your job; end up back in the Beggar’s Pit with all the other losers of history. You can admit it to me. We’re old friends. You just don’t want to lose your little corner of paradise, even if that means giving up your best catch phrases, isn’t that so?
I remember that he had been found dead in his pantry; his head smashed outward, like a juicy watermelon that Gallagher has thrown off of a roof, when his gimpy feet had shuffled and slid on dried rat turd; and so I go in for the kill.
Seems to me you must have stumbled on old coon apples, I lean into him and dish out insincere sympathy. You have to admit that it is poetic justice, no?
The Old Man does not answer, though I think that I see steam coming out of his ears. If that is so, then that is an answer of sorts; and I continue merrily, an innocent boy, or a cruel geezer, kicking at a sick dog that is well on its way.
Next thing you know the management, bless their do-gooder hearts, will be forcing you to install a wheelchair ramp in front of every one of your rooms; I whisper into an ear that looks like it had been French Kissed untold times by a sex-starved rat back in the Beggar’s Pit. Think of it. Leftist, black, homosexual, long hair, hippie gimps will be descending upon this hospitable motel in droves.
He pounds his right fist onto the counter; but, strangely, there is nothing but a muffled thump to be heard. The dead air either does not carry sound very well, or the Old Man has been weakened by the extent to which his gross anger literally burns away his graying flesh. If our friendly chat continues much longer along this line, then I suspect that he will be no more than smoldering bones on a counter; and then I shall be able to take one of his fine rooms free of charge.
He suspects that as well; and, as conniving in his death as he had been in his life, he turns the tables on me. His eyes cool back to the glowing red that is now his new normal. His cragged lips twitch into a semblance of his devil smile.
The only gimps this far up the highway are suicides, the Old Man says, as he sends his thousand-yard stare straight into my eyes. The palsies get to trade in their wheels for wings. Even them nig…I mean, African American…palsies get white wings on their black backs. But suicides get nothing, but their briefcases.
I drop the cheeky grin from my face. I look to my side and recognize that I am once more gripping the briefcase. It feels as if all the weight of the world; untold tons of sand and rock pressurized at the core of the earth; being held up by a stone hand that is as heavy and compact; the sin able to be carried by the sinner, because in the end the two are not at all distinct from one another; the labor as much a passion as a punishment for a mind reared by its own madness.
The Old Man steps out from behind the counter. He is a crippled old coot himself; leaning the right side of his body on a shotgun that he is using in place of a cane; and sliding his boots across the creaky floor rather than stepping. His disability notwithstanding, he moves much faster than expected, like a cat that has pounced out from inside its shadow, and is soon pressing his face into mine.
I reckon I know what’s inside your briefcase; the Old Man gloats. It’s just polished leather on the outside; but carry it into your motel room, turn on your lamp, unlatch the top, and inside you’ll find nothing but what you carried away from your last moment. For some, it’s an empty bottle of pills that’s just been magically refilled, since the last time they unlatched their briefcase in a motel room along the highway. For some, it’s a noose, or a plastic bag with tie string, or a hose that connects to an exhaust pipe, or a DVD of every cursed episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians, not my favorite method, ‘cause I need to get off my ass and hook up a DVD player to their TV. I suspect there’s nothing at all complicated in your briefcase. I suspect you’ve got nothing in there but a basic revolver and a bullet. After all, you’d been a soldier boy in Vietnam way back…
I served in the Navy, I counter him with a voice that is much too croaked to be decipherable beyond my own sore ears. I’m not a goddamned soldier boy.
And soldier boys with a fat wife at home and a penchant for psycho bitch whores on the road never make it passed middle aged without kissing their own muzzle one last time. I ain’t never been a soldier boy, so I can only reckon that you sing the Army Hymn, look up at the Stars and Stripes fluttering so gloriously in your sick mind, and pull the trigger just as you’re dreaming of a buck shined; I mean, African American shined; Medal of Honor on your proud chest. So every soldier boy has gotta fall on the battlefield one way or another. The question is where does he end up afterwards? Does he end up a name chiseled so fine into a war memorial? Or does he end up on that road; a forever stretch of asphalt in a desert wasteland; driving a car that ain’t never gonna run outta gas; tuning in to the one radio station he can get this far down the highway; and all that time feeling his head wound heal, ‘till it’s nothing but a flap of skin, and then a scar too small to notice? And then does he pull into a remote motel overseen by the grumpiest old coot he’s ever known, lock himself in his room, pull out the same revolver and bullet from his briefcase, and go down on his own muzzle, making the same clumpy blood mess, smashing what’s left of his head against the same headboard, again and again, even after the fat lady has sung? Is that what gimp soldier boys do? Is that what you’re gonna do, as soon as I hand you a room key?
I am not aware that I am stepping backward, my eyes fixated on those of the Old Man, but my heart racing as much as possible in the still air, until all of a sudden I bump into the door behind me. I feel as claustrophobic now as when I had been standing outside of my Delta 88 beneath the wide-open sky. It is the feeling of terror bugs swarming over every inch of my skin and poking their long and sharp antennae into each of my pores. It is being raped in every little hole; every scratch and wrinkle; until there is nothing left, but a high scream choked by its own fears, and a mind numbed to any other sensation but throbbing pain.
I clench the briefcase in front of me, as if I am able to use my own sin as a shield. It is all that I have at that moment; really, apart from a car that exists now for no other purpose than to drive me from one motel to another along the last highway, it is all that I have in eternity; and so I suppose that it is fitting in a way that I try to protect my living dead body with what had brought me here.
Don’t worry, the Old Man smiles. I ain’t gonna hurt you. You’re gonna do that to yourself. All I’m gonna do is hand you a room key and return to my busy work. Ol’ Pete wants to keep his nig; I mean his African Americans; occupied at all hours, so we happy-clappy folk don’t get into no trouble; a small price to be paid in return for eternal life; and a better fate than what has been handed out to gimps like you. So don’t you worry about what I’m gonna do or not do. Worry about how it’s gonna burn when the bullet severs your old brainstem yet again.
I see nothing, but a gray shadow fluttering in and out of the blackness at the foot of my queen bed. It is the curtain that I had drawn tight, when finally I had decided to be done with it. It is being blown outward by an air conditioner; a machine that resembles a long and rectangular water basin built into the wall facing the last highway; that I just cannot figure out how to turn off for the life of me. In spite of the whirring motor, I do not feel the cold air against the hot, sweaty spasms of fear that are beating out from my body with every heartbeat. Indeed, I do not even feel the clumpy mattress beneath my legs and butt. Only the hard headboard; pine sculpted into the corporate image of the Gerber Baby Angel sleeping on a feather down; is firm enough against the back of my aching head for me to feel it. And as for the ache, it is not a physical pain, so much as a mental seduction for me to pick up the revolver that I have tucked by my side and to wrap my chapped lips about the muzzle. If it had been a physical pain in a skull that feels like it is breathing inward and outward, then it would be most intense, of course, but at least localized and manageable. But there is no limit, none that even the imagination may fathom, to a mental seduction. It is the be all and end all of existence in a moment that stretches into its own sick gray of eternity. It is the passion beast that can never be satiated, even by the blast of a revolver and the baptismal immersion of what little is left of the brain into a hellfire all its own, but that can be muzzled and chained a while, if only I allow my mouth to taste gunpowder and my index finger to press back on the trigger.
The next thing I know I am splattered inside the headboard; my eyes just swimming in a vomit of brain goo that is now sliding down from the soft chin of the Gerber Baby Angel, like a blood chunky Rasputin beard growing out from an adorable face still lost in the sleep of peace; but I am also intact consciousness staring into an unplugged television set at the other side of the cramped room. Mine is a living mind seeingeternity to be nothing at all, really, but a mess of a suicide reflected as dark shadows off of a cold screen. Mine is a deflated sense, inchoate at first, but then merging from the ends of the universe into a singular thought, that the road is still out there, long and straight on a desert landscape without end, untouched by any other tires than my own, calling me back to my Delta 88, and bidding me to find refuge in yet another motel room just like the one that I have soiled. There is nothing in the totality of the universe but a call to use my elbow to push back against the headboard, so that the brain splatter may be pushed forward as if from the surface of a trampoline. The mess will be everywhere then, but that will make it easier for me to pick up the chunks, one by one, and to stuff them back into my open head; a Humpty Dumpty stumbling about a dark motel room putting himself back together again; until I am intact; not totally, but good enough for government work, to be sure; and able then to scrub all the blood and the bone fragments that I did not manage to scoop back into my head. This clean up will feel as if it is lasting forever; soap, water, and hand towels only absorbing so much bloody gunk at a time; but that will be just fine, since there is nothing to which to look forward but returning the room key to the front desk, heaving the heavy briefcase onto the backseat, and motoring down to the next motel to replay the same suicide; nothing to pass the eternity but Coast to Coast AM; nothing to ease the damnation that must be repeated in perpetuity or until the mercurial angels have tired of kicking my beaten corpse.
And so I am imagining a pack of angels; black booted thugs with wings on muscular backs, snarls beneath fine noses, and crazy eyes bulging at the seams; forming a circle around my corpse, and taking turns to kick it with their dagger tips or to smash it with their muddy heels; when the Old Man brings me back to reality by dangling a room key in front of my eyes and grinning his devil whites.
You’re gonna be in Room 13, the Old Man whispers. Way down the other end, so I don’t have to smell your hot brain parts and piss, when you finally get around to doing your business. And don’t you forget to clean up after yourself; just putting in the old elbow grease; ‘cause as the sign outside says there’s just never gonna be no room services provided, no matter how often you dial “0” on your rotary. I run a fine motel here, not a goddamned charity, so just you mind your own responsibilities and return the key when you check out. I presume I’m clear enough, even to a long hair, hippie wife-stealing bum like you used to be.
Aren’t you going to give me a bar of soap and a towel? I inquire stupidly.
You’ve got all that you need in the trunk of your car, the Old Man snarls.
I reach back and grab a hold of the doorknob. I am paralyzed in fear; but even more so, I am determined to get as far from the Old Man as fate will allow me. I am not motivated by a survival instinct; the old fight-or-flight passion not all that compatible with an eternity of replaying my suicide over and over again in remote motels much like this one; so much as I desire absolute privacy in my last moment. I want my drama to be mine. I do not want to be one of those sad souls whose damnation may be attributed at least in part to the cultural history into which they had been born and raised. If Hell is my fortune, then I want to know that I have embraced my own hellfire pit and have not been cast there on account of the madness of a cuckolded husband, or the cries of beaten whores.
I want to be able to drop off the room key, and to return sheepishly back to the sunset highway, without being observed by another soul. This is my final dignity; the dignity of the damned; the dignity of blowing out my own brains on a mattress before the judging stares and the upturned noses can find me so far down the highway. And a lonely death, unseen by the likes of the Old Man, and unblemished by his condemning eyes, is the soil from which this dignity is born.
The problem, of course, is that the Old Man will not be leaving me alone in my room. He may never step out from his front office; never even lift a good eye from his log; but he will be right in that room with me at the end; grinning from within the fluttering curtain shadow; exhibiting just enough cantankerous mirth in his eyes for them to flare from red to purple and, at the exact moment my index finger pulls the trigger, to cold, impenetrable black; and, in virtue of nothing other than his presence, reminding me that the price to be paid for the kisses I had stolen from his wife in a kitchen closet can never be satisfied, even in the length and the width of eternity. Mine is the unpardonable sin; a strange reference in the Good Book made real and visceral in my condemnation; a plea reasserted by many a small town preacher casting fire and brimstone from high pulpits, the Old Man will say, not in words, nor even in silence, but by carving a hook for himself in the far corner of my mind. Mine is the singular lamentation not heard at Calvary; the peculiar sin set aside from divine mercy for no reason other than to appease the malice of the powers and principalities; silly, winged creeps each and every one of them feasting off of the nightmares boys and men share; that rules over our lives; the cry of dereliction never to be heard in this eternity, no matter the heavenly choir singing praise to His mercy and goodness forever and ever, amen, except as a repeated death moan in the sunset desert.
All that because the Old Man is there with me; reminding me; hating me; feeding his insatiable appetite for blood and soul lust off of my heightened fear and underlying despair. He dashes my hope for a dignified end and then throws me to that void wherein pathetic suicides must wallow in their gray insipidness; not really because I had an affair with his wife, though surely that incident had bruised his ego some; but really because he is in the power to inflict as such on me; to don his KKK whites one more time; and to look upon me as the last coon he will ever be able to hang from a limb. In that sense, he is as much a pawn of his own condemnation as I am of mine; his the compulsion to hunt down and to string up the last coon; mine the compulsion to be hunted by my sin and forced to suffer its kiss at the back of my head over and over again. And together ours is an eternal death dance that can find no respite in a time stood still just after sunset; a suicidal shot repeated over and over again without the untold time in between for cleaning up and driving down the road; a moment of clarity where the sheer futility of our dead lives this far down the last highway is undeniable.
So let’s get going, the Old Man prods my chest with the muzzle of his big shotgun, and in that way shoves me back into the wide-open air. Ol’ Pete’s just charitable enough to pay your room tab. God knows, if it was me, I’d make you saddle my shotgun a fortnight ‘fore I handed over the key to one of my rooms. I reckon that’s why I’m in the boondocks and Ol’ Pete’s mingling with the jet set above the clouds. But Ol’ Pete’s paying by the minute; not all that easy for me to calculate, ‘cause time’s standing still in these parts; and I’ll be nig; I mean, African American damned; if I’m gonna send him an invoice in the Heaven Sent Mail Service that has more minutes in it than is necessary for you to do all your gonna do and then to hightail it back to the long road. Don’t just stand there in the parking lot looking like a nig…nig…I mean, African American…in a noose. Go get what you need outta your car trunk and haul your hippie ass onto your bed.
The Old Man throws the room key at me. It lands in the dirt by my shoes.
I can barely make out the room key in the dim twilight; but even though I have been standing out here only a few seconds, I am already way too tired to bend down and to pick it up. I feel as if I am in a cramped closet where a large, invisible tube is sucking out what little air remains. If I do not get into my room and bolt the door behind me, then I shall clutch my own throat, stumble to the ground, and suffer the pains of breath starvation over and over again just steps away from the front desk of the Eternal Rest Motel. And, for me, that is a fate; indeed, a medieval torture device; much worse than a suicide repeated against a headboard, because out here beneath the wide-open sky I can practically see the angels above the clouds looking down upon me and chuckling stupidly at my predicament. No, there is no privacy out here; nothing, but my repeated death by breath starvation reenacted on a desert stage inside the glare of a spotlight.
I stumble back to the car trunk. It has been opened already; no doubt, a merciful act by one of Ol’ Pete’s little minions; and inside there is a bucket, an unused bar of soap, and five hand towels folded and piled on top of each other.
I can barely make out that the towels are still slightly pink. I imagine the towels had been drenched in blood red, when I had folded them at my last stop along the highway. They have been healing then just like the back of my head; returning to the moment before the bullet severs the brainstem; turning back a hand in an invisible clock somewhere, so that I can never move into the future.
I feel the back of my head. The loose flap of skin is gone. It is now just a hole about the size of a dime; an open wound still; but an open wound bending inward at the circumference. It is soon going to be a closed scab; then, just the slightest of skin blemishes; and finally the same skin as when I had tried to flee from my own life the first time. And, by then, the towels will be as white clean as the first drift of virgin snow, and my mouth again will be tasting gunpowder on the cold muzzle of an antique, but still all too dependable, Colt Python 357.
I gather everything out of the trunk. I need to get indoors right now. The stale air seems to be getting thinner with every breath, and I sense that this is Mother Nature shoving me into a tiny room and urging me to do what I must do.
I stagger and gasp down the parking lot to the last door. I cannot see the room number in the twilight, but I just know that this is the very same Room 13 to which I am assigned whenever I stumble into a motel along the last highway; a sleazy room with a broken ice machine and a dumpster against the right wall, an endless expanse of sand beyond the back wall, and everywhere a continuous creak in old wood slabs that is reminiscent of thumping boots in a death march.
I am leaning against the door; out of breath and worn down to the bone; when I realize that my room key is still in the dirt near the front office. I really cannot fathom staggering all the way out there to retrieve it. Indeed, I have no mind for anything at all, but to press my lips against this door and to cry aloud.
Except that I am too weak to cry aloud. Also, there is a small part of me; just a hint of my former pride; that does not want to give the Old Man the sure satisfaction of hearing my insipid cries echo in the still and thin air between us.
And is it possible to succumb to a second death? Right now, every inch of my body is screaming out in that nervous agony that precedes a certain death it knows is just around the bend. I am a cauldron of excited senses and paralyzing anxiety; an alien not only in the open air but, increasingly, within my own skin; and deep down aware that mine will be a very public death, watched by angels on high, taunted by the Old Man in the front office, and judged forever by God.
And, indeed, it is divine judgment that buckles my knees even as my dry throat tightens and my chest heaves. Somehow, though I have been driving this highway for what seems an eternity, I still cling to the vague sense that suicide is an escape; a quiet step out the back door, before the host notices that there is going to be one less guest at the party; an avoidance of the kind of “Come to Jesus” moment that is intrinsic to the exercise of divine judgment. Or maybe it is simply the case that a private suicide, a clean up of the mess, and an exit off stage left when no one is observing are less showy, thankfully devoid of excess, even a mark of humility. Maybe there is something intrinsically polite about the private suicide with which I am indelibly stained this far down the last highway.
So I have no choice but to get inside this goddamned room, I think, while pounding against a door that I know is never going to open without a room key.
I drop the bucket, soap, and towels by the door. I briefly debate leaving the briefcase there also. No one is going to stroll out from the desert wasteland and steal it, after all; and I doubt that I shall have enough wind in me to travel to the room key and back, if I am lugging also a ball and chain by my right side.
But I can no more drop the briefcase than escape my fate. Frankly, I had forgotten the briefcase altogether while driving down the road; just as I had no memory of my last stop at a motel; but ever since I stepped out of the Delta 88 I have been as linked to what I suspect is inside this briefcase as I have been to the beat of my dead heart. I am Linus with his blanket; no matter what may be practical in any crisis moment; and that is just the way it must be forevermore.
I start back towards the room key. I manage only several weak steps; the slow, but intense, focus on maintaining balance that is the hallmark of a drunk; and then I realize that I am crawling across the sand like an Arab entranced by a water mirage in the distance. I am nothing, but chapped lips hanging from an old, gaunt face, and shriveled skins slithering back into a gaggle of dried bones.
I am also delirious; just plain bonkers; babbling into my coarse drool just how much I want Santa Claus to give me a severed brainstem and a bloody back side no later than Christmas Eve. I bump into the passenger front tire of my car several times, sensing that I must be close, and yet having no more of a GPS in my wind starved head than is necessary to crawl in a tight circle near the hood.
I may have continued crawling in this senseless manner forever and ever, amen, if I did not collide with the barrel of a shotgun being utilized as a cane. I look upward; sliding my nose against the barrel in the process; and see the grin of a mad demon hovering over me, like a pedophile at the side of a child’s bed.
It is the Old Man. But it is also a skeleton veiled by loosened skin; a sick, ill tempered beast with purple eyes that spit out fireworks; and a perverse lust incarnate in a queer smile that is at once seductive and terrifying to whomever should happen to lay eyes upon it. It is dripping gravy evil, succulent and saucy on a plate, but weighing the moment it will turn the tide on its diner and feast on the stomach that had presumed to digest it. It is beast intelligence, its eyes remorseless and yet cunning, its gestures unpredictable and yet well measured.
I want to scream in fright, but I manage no more than a haggard cough. I cover my mouth with all the melodramatic flourish of a sinful woman surprised to be caught in the act; and as I stare into his devil grin with my anxious eyes, I sense that they are bulging out from their sockets and floating in midair; a silly fantasy straight out of a cartoon, no doubt; but an apt description of just how I feel as I observe that I am on my hands and knees before the kookiest of kooks this side of that porous and pointless border separating the dying and the dead.
Forget something? The Old Man teases me, while tossing the room key in his right hand. Or are you so ballsy you thought I’d hand deliver it, even though the sign says No Room Service in letters so big and bold even a dumb nig; okay, mentally disabled African American; well, even one of them folks could read it?
I cannot answer. I just hold out my left hand like a beggar near the end.
So which one are you? The Old Man widens his grin. Are you a dumb ass, a ballsy snake, or a mongrel between the two? And, more so, what do you think I should do to right a wrong and to lick some sense into that soft head of yours?
I jump for the room key and almost manage to snatch it in midair. I am a starving dog grasping for a bit of food its despicable master tosses out of reach.
The Old Man is taken aback, but then he lands a kick into my bowels that knocks out what little air is left in there. He seems to grow in stature just then and, as a result, resembles one of those winged freaks that get their sick jollies from kicking and stomping corpses. He is so much in his element when he has a chance to inflict such pain that he manages in those moments to rekindle just a bit more of his old self; the cantankerous proprietor of a gas station and a grill, who could raise holy hell with the boys during late night coon hunts; the outlaw even among the KKK kooks, who had hidden away as much as he had perverted in plain sight over the years; the man of secrets who keeps the folks in town as interested as they are on edge, because they know that there is a lot that he is going to be carrying with him into the Beggar’s Pit. He knows that his old self is not going to stick around for too long; his is now the life of a cog stuck inside of a vast bureaucracy and restrained by all sorts of rules from on high after all; so when he gets a taste of that old liquor he is careful to take full advantage of it.
And thus I am not surprised, as the Old Man reaches into his back pocket and returns with a pair of scuffed handcuffs. There is a small Dixie flag painted on the two pawls; stars and bars that seem especially bright in the dull twilight that hangs over the world as a death pall; but, otherwise, the handcuffs are so discolored by rust as to look like something reeled from the bottom of the seas.
He cuffs my left wrist; leaving my right hand free to grasp the briefcase; and starts to pull me with a strength that I had not envisioned in his small, thin frame and in his reliance on a shotgun that he uses as a cane. He is determined to bully the last gasp out from me; standing over my despair as if a fallen angel sizzling in his own purple eyes; chuckling madness into my mind just as it fades into absolute darkness; and so he rises to the occasion accordingly. He is a god; his divine jurisdiction not extending beyond this small corner of the boondocks, to be sure, but all fire and brimstone with respect to the Old Sodom crawling in haggard spurts of forward motion beneath him; and I am a dog dreaming of the key that he clenches in his loony grin, as he yanks me to the back of the motel.
There is a wooden scaffold back there. Now, I would have sworn that the backside of the motel featured nothing but an endless expanse of sand dunes in a heat haze, so my first impression is that it must be an illusion, or maybe a bit of magic that materialized out of thin air. But upon closer inspection it looks as if it has been blood stained by those hangings that went so wrong as to rip dark heads off of twisted necks and to spray dirty coon blood in every odd direction.
You hippie long hairs ain’t the only fans of Arbor Day, the Old Man grins, while looking down at me and gesturing proudly towards the scaffold. I planted this here African American Tree (he snickers so much at this point that he spits out drool that hangs from his chin like a Fu Manchu beard) in memory of all the coons; I mean, Miss Goodall’s apes; well, no, I really mean upstanding men and women descended from Ham; who just happened to slip with ropes tied around their chicken necks. A tree is history living in old bark and gnarly branches. But when it’s cut and formed just right, like a wooden spoon slapped on the rear or a door that slides open beneath a pair of bound feet, it’s the best way to lick a wholesome fear of God into the next generation. And, I reckon, a boy who goes to his room without bothering to take his room key with him needs a good dose of the fear of God; a little neck stretch to free up his mind to the lessons we all learned back in Sunday school; and a tongue hanging loose enough to lick up all the discipline the Good Lord sees fit to spoon feed him. So it seems to me that, even though you’re no spear chuckin’ fool, in the name of race equality (he has to cough out that phrase) you can be an honorary African American, as much as a real life spear chuckin’ fool can be an honorary White Man. That’s my take on the Martin Luther King dream (he has to vomit that name in order for it to pass his lips, and as a result he almost gags on his own sentence), and this far down the highway, it’s about as close as you’re gonna get to that brotherhood of man shit that makes them communist, twinkle toed libtards bust nuts in their skirts.
He yanks me forward again. He is a skeleton man chuckling madness into his own spittle. His lanky frame is in the grip of a horrid spasm that is likely the result of excited nerves, so that he is at once a cantankerous gnome pulling his victim into the void and an innocent child awakening to his first Christmas joys.
He stops by a wheelchair ramp that leads up to the platform. There is an official looking sign beside the ramp. Like the sign indoors, it features Old Saint Peter with his white beard and wizard’s robe sitting at his high desk before the pink pearly gates. But instead of waving his index finger, he has opened his old, arthritic palms and shrugged his shoulders as if to sing: let’s give them a break.
It is difficult for me to read that sign, since my mind is flailing about the edges of suffocation madness. I need to focus as much as if trying to solve right here and now a mathematical conundrum, and I discover that that focus goes a long way to relaxing my heartbeats and opening my lungs more to the stale air.
Ol’ Pete Says…Don’t Just Give a Gimp a Happy Hand…Build Him a Ramp!
Of course, the paralyzed, drooling, glassy-eyed freak shows are given the chance to trade in their wheelchairs for a new pair of angelic wings, when their respirators finally give out on them. So the only gimps this far in the boondocks must be the suicides; the would be escape artists; the pouty boys who just take their marbles and go home, when their game seems to be turning against them.
I crawl up the ramp, scraping my knees on splinters, and eyeing a noose.
The Old Man stares at the noose. He is contemplating it like it is a grand, but also deeply personal, painting that he has stumbled upon at the Louvre. He seems small in comparison to his idol; no more than a mangy dog on the eternal coon hunt whose tiny brain is being held spellbound; or, perhaps, just a two-bit actor on a stage that makes him look insignificant, since it had been built to be a platform for those powers and principalities from on high that truly know how to inflict pain and suffering in the world. He is pathetic to the extent that he is presuming to be a student and a connoisseur of the very art of vicious mayhem.
But he has no idea how he looks; and so, without any mental reservation that can be noticed, he grabs a hold of the noose, turns back to his victim, and frames his own face with it. He is a loopy grin staring through a porthole that in his mind anyway shows the world to be nothing, but stiff coons swaying on dark tree limbs as far as the eyes can see in any given direction, and burning crosses side by side that make up the hazy heat horizon line of the endless killing field.
Every man’s a king in hell, the Old Man chuckles. But why be a king at all if there is no one else to be a jester dancing an old asphyxiation jig before him?
The Old Man thinks a moment. He continues in the manner of the sadist, schoolyard bully; his eyes glowing in mischief; his lips pulled back to reveal dog teeth that could snap out and bite any time. Like all bullies, he is sputtering his venom from a position of weakness, which he tries to cloak with all the strange bombast of a crazed king, as if madness is the shadow on the heels of strength.
Bet I surprised you with that one, didn’t I? The Old Man asks me without really expecting or wanting my response. Asphyxiation. A lotta syllables that do not just roll off the tongue. But, you see, we country folk can do our fair share of learnin’ if we want. And asphyxiation’s the kinda word that should be in the Good Book, if it ain’t. It deserves to be wrapped in nice paper, topped off with a curly bow, and stored where the sun don’t shine and no man who ain’t got to know is gonna know. So count yourself a lucky hippie to hear me say that word.
He snaps his head out from behind the porthole and yanks me to my soft and mushy feet. He barrels into my face and exhales into my nose a gross smell that is a poisoned brew of rotten meat, whiskey, and pussy just before orgasm.
But this ain’t no one room schoolhouse, now is it? The Old Man snarls. No more time for the niceties of a Christian education; no more time to be mindin’ the old spinster school teacher, while actually dreamin’ about what’s snug as a squished bug beneath her long, black dress; no more time for nothin’ at all, but an old fashioned learnin’ by being on the receivin’ end of a hard beatin’ to the core; this time, not a whip to the back, or even a boot to the groin, but a rope to a windpipe, while your Massa is whistling Dixieinto a sunset that never ends.
The Old Man slips the noose around my neck and centers me on a square trapdoor painted blood red so as to be distinguished from the rest of the faded, gray platform. He moves me in the quick and subtle way of a man who has had his share of time slipping nooses around necks and centering toes on trapdoors.
I barely notice him, as he ties my ankles together. I am seeing the same, endless killing field that had so enchanted the Old Man. There are just millions of young black men hanging from tree limbs; their necks twisted unnaturally by the kind of hard ropes that exist for no other reason than to tear into soft skins and to rub friction fire into blood geysers; their tongues like purple snakes that are hanging down from the branches of that forbidden tree at the center of the Garden of Eden; and their eyes bulging out from tight sockets like characters in a minstrel show. Even though there is no trace of wind; barely enough air to let a man stand on his own two feet; each and every one of them is wiggling a dark and illicit coon dance from their penis downward; hip gyrations and feet shivers that can excite a blush out from even the nicest of girls; identical body spasms, indeed identical corpses, that seem to be taking their cues from the hazed heat of burning crosses off in the distance; living death at the mercy of vicious gods.
And then all at once the corpses twist their necks; fleshy sinews creaking from the effort; dead skin and bone flailing off of their necks to expose the sick gunk inside; and their bulging eyes are looking directly at me; indeed, into that dark corner of my mind that I had hoped to keep private while giving a blowjob to a muzzle; and their thick blue lips are contorting into schoolyard bully grins.
They’re gimps just like you, the Old Man reflects. Born suicides; escaped convicts on the run from judgment; and just needin’ a slip and a twist to learn.
The corpses are as black as burnt charcoal; their throats so twisted their chins are crammed into their flesh somewhere behind their left shoulders; their heads so swollen they resemble the light bulb shaped skulls of extraterrestrials; their eyes obscene and penetrating; a kind of idiot sentience in those eyes, not on account of what they are or had been before that KKK kook finally caught up to them, but on account of what they are seeing in me right now. And, because they are seeing me for what I really am, they are like me; no, even more so, all these dead coons are me, and I am them, and together we are hanging in a still wind and writhing in the hazy heat from burning crosses; one lit for each one of us; all of them together constituting the horizon of this death world and closing off the reach of the imagination, so that the mind cannot fathom God Almighty or Satan or any one of the angels in between reigning in the lands beyond those burning crosses; indeed, the mind cannot fathom anything out there, but a void that never will be touched by a spirit and kindled into an actual anything at all.
I do not feel the Old Man take the briefcase out from my right hand. I do not feel him handcuff my wrists together behind me. I barely sense him tugging at the noose to make sure that it is snug and tight beneath my chin; and so, for me, the rope burn down there is no more than a prickly tease against soft baby skin, the kind of airy touch I would expect from a pedophile just as he starts to move his hands and his tongue across my beaten flesh, the intimation of terrors yet to be felt that is disguised as a friendly kiss where the neck meets the chin.
I hear the slide of the trapdoor; the sound moves slowly through the still air and takes an eternity to reach into my consciousness and to plant its flag on the wet and mushy soil in there; an eternity forever playing itself out, so that I am forever receiving that sound; but I do not feel myself falling through the air beneath the platform. Perhaps it is because there is not enough air in the wide-open death world for me to experience the stomach in the head sensations of a fall. Perhaps it is because I have been marked before time to know nothing less or more than a bullet severing a brainstem and splattering brain parts into hard headboards. Perhaps there is no more time left to experience the myriad other ways a soul may be ripped out from a body and held up as the phony prize it is.
I am dangling from the end of a rope. I can feel that much. But this is no different than how I have been living my life, and more recently driving down a highway that leads further into death, since Uncle Sam saw fit one day to hand me a one-way ticket to the steam bath jungles of Vietnam; no different, really, than how I have come to know reality; not even any less air in my windpipe and lungs than when I had been crawling behind the high boot heels of the Old Man.
It is true that I cannot go anywhere right now, but I do not feel any more entrapped than when behind the wheel of my Delta 88, or when checking into a motel room along the way, or when caressing my quivery lips about the muzzle, or even when pulling my sweaty index finger against the trigger. I am not at all cramped. I am as much a small figure in the wide-open right now as when I first stepped out from the Delta 88 and refocused my eyes on that front office door.
What I feel; indeed, the only sensation that I can feel; is them; the black gimps staring at me with their bulging eyes; the born suicides invading that tiny corner in my mind that I want to preserve all for myself; the escape artists that are denying me my right to escape. There is no privacy in this public execution, and I fear that there will be no privacy when the Old Man tires of my half-assed jester dance, cuts me to the ground, and gives me my room key; no privacy, as I shut the door behind me; no privacy as I make certain that the drape is drawn tight; no privacy as I open the briefcase by the desk lamp; no privacy as I sit up against the headboard and contemplate the sound and the feel of a shot to the back of the head; no privacy as the witch’s gruel splatters everywhere at once.
And when there is no privacy, the sadistic winged freaks surrounding the beaten corpse then get to have the last laugh. These freaks don the garb of sad slaves hanging lifelessly from tree limbs; but they are the masters in this death world; keeping eternal time with the sway of their bound feet in stale air; and, with their black skins and purple tongues against a gray backdrop, providing for those who have eyes to see the only texture possible in a world without creases or cracks. And because they are the masters, it does not matter if the door has been bolted, the drapes drawn, and the lamp switched off. They will see, even as they are not seen; and so a private suicide is a public humiliation in the end.
No, even more so, it is a public affirmation of their power over me, dark skinned rage triumphing over white privilege, so that even my moment of gross self-indulgence, my death that I will to be my own, in fact is theirs. It is stored away in their minds and regurgitated in that strange speech of theirs every now and then simply as a trifle amusement. It is a punch line in one of their jokes; a throwaway line in one of their antiphonal spirituals by the campfire; a fleeting thought that brings a smile to their faces, when they are being whipped by that white man who presumes to be able to lord over them. As my private suicide is theirs, so is my public humiliation a tiny matter not even worthy of a log entry.
And when the actor on the stage senses that his own death really cannot matter even to himself, then surely the man in the front row cannot have more than a trifle interest in whatever the actor is saying or doing before his eyes. In death, as in theater, it is either everything or nothing at all; and so as I writhe, but never actually give up the ghost, it is becoming all too clear that mine is an awkward and unconvincing drama truly much closer to nothing than everything.
The Old Man must be thinking much the same thing, because I can see in his face below me the first etchings of disappointment. He keeps the wide grin that stretches from ear to ear; even the purple heat sparkle that spits out from his eyes every now and then; but the rest of his face drops into a look that can be best described as boredom mixed in with waves of resentment. He is simply not receiving the price of admission, and already in the back of his mind he has started to think about whether he can and should lodge a complaint to a higher up in management. He knows too well that as that thought grows in importance within his mind, his capacity to relish the pain before him diminishes in spades.
I reckon Ol’ Pete wants you to get back to your business, as he’s the man payin’ the room tab and all, the Old Man reflects. And I gotta return to my log.
I attempt to look away from him at that moment, even as it is impossible for me to control where I am looking at any given time while cramped inside of a noose. I do not want him to read in my eyes the extent to which I really want him to carry through with his current train of thought, because I realize that he would be vicious enough then to keep me dangling on the rope just to spite me.
But I need not have worried. The Old Man is too absorbed in his own self-pity; mumbling how he has been cheated of a good kill; and even kicking at the sand like a pouty boy at one point; and so he is blind to whatever emotion I am projecting through my bulging eyes just then. And as he is temporarily blind, so is he stooped and shriveled, a winged rodent being pressed down by an endless, twilight sky, a loony bat with such faulty sonar equipment that it is sweeping in upon itself and, as a result, burying itself in the dead sand beneath its old toes.
The Old Man steps out from his disappointment just enough to stagger up to the stage, to cut the rope with a Swiss Army knife (like the handcuffs around my wrists, it is also emblazoned with the stars and bars of the Old Confederacy and likely had been used in the past as a weapon of war against the defenseless coons who happened to stroll too near to his Texaco Gas and Grill), and to drop me like a sack of potatoes into the sand beneath the scaffold. He wanders back to his front office; sulking with his chin to his chest; clenching an invisible rock in each of his dried up palms; and so the coast is clear when finally I slither out from under that stage and crawl to where he has dropped the room key for me.
I am still handcuffed at the wrists and bound at the ankles. I smother my face into the sand like a malnourished dog looking for something to eat inside a mouthful of dried pebbles. I lift my head a few minutes later with the room key clutched inside my teeth, a pillar of compact sand plugging each nostril, and an irritating itch in the back of my mouth that cannot be scratched by anything at all, except a bullet exploding from the muzzle of that revolver in my briefcase.
And sure enough, as that thought crosses my mind, I see that briefcase a few paces away. I crawl over to its handle and then realize that it is impossible for me to grab a hold of it with my bound hands. I barely can wiggle my swollen fingers now braced at the bottom of my back, let alone grip the handle in front of me. I suppose that I could grip it with my teeth, but for the room key there.
In that moment of mental despair, I am reminded again of just how hard it is to take in a breath, when the air is so wide and stale beneath the sunset. I need to flare my nostrils like a lanced bull just to drop a bit of dead air into my shriveled lungs. Even worse, I can hear those dead coons laughing all about me.
Goddamned hippie long hair, the Old Man huffs, returning from the front office and bending before me. No better than them…uh…African Americans…all the time talking about their dream…you know, the I have a dream shit that just scares the kiddies and raises the blood pressure of old men…well, clamoring for a mouthful of freedom, besides watermelon and grits, and yet all the time just standing out there with their palms out and dumb looks on their faces. Is voting not enough charity for you? Is integration not enough charity for you? Dole out a spoonful of charity and the beggar will want the whole damned bowl. Next you and your kind will demand the right to marry our women and take them off one by one to Old Sodom to smoke weed and to rattle tambourines on my nickel. An injustice like that one deserves the kind of retribution I dish out; balancing the scales; eye for an eye, then bending you over the barrel for a dead hump, when no one but the moon is watching us; so we know whose the boss, and whose his bitch. But this far down the highway, we’re both bitches; tasked to wash dishes or to hang out laundry; ‘cause let’s face it the only actual men ‘round here are Ol’ Pete and the Man Upstairs. We’re just women; a white woman, in my case; a goddamned hippie long hair Negress, in your case; but women, just the same.
I’m white, I mumble through the room key. And I haven’t worn long hair, since Uncle Sam sent me out to kill jungle gooks in my nineteenth year. So I do not know what the hell you’re talking about. I just know I must crawl inside my room, bolt the door, pull the drape, and turn off the lights before it is too late.
You think you started down this highway the night you pulled the trigger and made a big mess in a motel room, the Old Man grins and pops a dark purple sparkle from both of his eyes. But, in fact, you started down this highway when you first noodled my wife in the kitchen closet. You pumped in some gas, when you left for boot camp. You pumped in more gas, when you came home to take the hand of a fat bitch. And you kicked your gear into overdrive, when you took a job that allowed you to roam the highways beating up whores and stiffing the coon eyed bitches their lunch money. So you see, you are right now all that you had been on your nineteenth year; all cock and bull; all John Wayne swagger; a man’s man; and that makes you forever nothing, but a hippie long hair Negress.
I am a cornered rat; ridiculed by coons who are twisting their necks even now so that they can stare at me; pressed into the sand by the endless expanse of twilight above me, so that I shall be that much more motivated to crawl into my motel room and finish the business for which I have been fated; captured in the madness of a cantankerous coot who is holding me back from my fate, even if only for a while, so as to play out his own peculiar fantasy on whatever is left of my body and soul this far down the highway; a pawn moved across the board for the amusement of others; and so, like all cornered rats, I lash back with the righteous indignation of a man with nothing else to lose. I suspect that that is a reason why many men rise to the level of hero status only as they are nearing a horrid end. They are courageous, since they no longer have anything to gain for themselves from propriety; and, somewhere in the back of the head, they think that the death will be less painful, and surely less protracted, if they are full of heart and hoarse of breath at that moment when the world fades into the gray.
I’m white, I scream so loudly through the room key that I very nearly spit it on in the process. I don’t care what you say. I’m white now and forevermore, even when gasping for air from the top of your precious African American Tree.
The Old Man steps back from me. He looks as if he has been slapped by a firm back hand and cannot figure out if I am just a fragment of his imagination, that small part of him that fears that he may not be the only white man this far down the highway, and that incongruent part of him that senses that he may be as much a hippie long hair coon as the creepy boys dangling from invisible trees all about him and the suicidal boy gasping for a breath that will never be there.
Realizing that my insult is not an awkward skip in his own head, he turns from a bumbling fool to a vicious spitfire in a blink of time. He stumbles back a few more steps, leans his right side on his shotgun cane, and points a quivering, judgmental index finger at me with his left hand. His eyes brighten into steamy white coals in melting sockets; an incarnation of that madness that tears down, as much as it burst outward; and a dark spiritual power that is as dead as alive.
You’re nothing, but a wife-stealing nigger, the Old Man snarls his venom.
There is a subtle shift in the stale air. The dead sky awakens in thunder.
It is a small rumble way off in the distance; the upset stomach of a dark, menacing angel who is above the cloud cover near the horizon; but it contrasts so much with the silent sterility that had characterized that eternal sunset over the two of us that we nearly jump out of our skins. It is a hydrogen bomb inside our imaginations; a blast too large to be defined as anything but the entirety of the universe convulsed in a spasm; a blinding white light behind our dried eyes, so that we are at once floating in that existential limbo that is the presumption of man before his angry God. We are infinitesimally tiny in the drama; not even pawns moved about a chessboard; and not capable of any greater consciousness than that which is necessary to fear what may happen when God sets aside that blaring trumpet and just speaks to our souls in the one way that is unavoidable.
The Old Man steps out from his fear just enough to look back at that spot in the sky where the angel had unleashed its bowels. His is the crimson skin and the white eyes of unrestrained hatred; the devil born out of fear; the bully who lashes out precisely because he knows that he is lower on the existential totem pole than even those coons which he has watched swinging dead from his trees.
He shakes his left fist at the sky; defiance incarnate; hellfire molded and hardened into the semblance of a man; and yet he also leans precariously on an old shotgun cane that looks as if it may break in two at any moment. He is then and forever all of the bombast of every war ever waged by men, except as such is seen in contrast to the power of God Almighty. If he continues along this sick and twisted line, then he will be no larger than a sand pebble, if he is not now.
I don’t care about your speech code, the Old Man screams. Truth is truth even in the devil’s bowels. And the undeniable truth is that there are men, and there are niggers, and this hippie long hair is not a man. See how he begs, how he hides in a kitchen closet to do his business with my wife, how we smacks his whores in the dead of night. Even now, he cannot bear the scrutiny of men and angels, and so he darkens his soul skin like that of a coon so that he can hide in the blackness of a sunset world. Miscreant curse he is; a boy born in chains who presumes to ensnare the rest of us in them; and there is only one word that fits him to a tee. And I’ll be damned, if I am not allowed to call this spade a spade.
He points at me again, when he calls me a spade. He appears unaware at that moment that there is a God or an angel against whom he has been so loud and bellicose. He knows nothing but his disdain for me. That disdain truly is the fullness of his private little hell; his narcissism expressed as his hatred for what I had been when nineteen years old; his despair incarnated in how his old index finger shakes wildly, as he directs his mad judgment on me with his white eyes.
But while he may have forgotten God, God does not forget him. He does not forget how he had asked to be damned. He is very glad to oblige his prayer, not from any motive that we men would recognize as love, but from that queer madness that is peculiar to the divine mind that says that God should take each and every opportunity to remind His quarrelsome subjects who dons the crown.
And so the next thunder blast really is overhead. The bolt strikes the Old Man’s left shoulder and shoots the adjoining arm straight into the air, so that it resembles a Heil Hitler salute. It remains in that salute a few seconds and then explodes into a ball of bone fragments and dried up flesh bits. Strangely, there is no blood spilled, perhaps because a loony coot as white bread as the Old Man lost his blood in favor of hellfire and phlegm a long time ago, and the blast ball soon blends into the heat haze, like everything else captured in eternal sunset, and robbed of whatever distinctive tone and texture had prevailed up the road.
The shotgun cane bursts into two pieces; and the Old Man stumbles back one spasmodic step at a time, until he loses his balance entirely and falls into a bed of sand. He does not lose his consciousness; God apparently deciding not to spare the old coot even a moment of the anxiety and the pain that must follow a loss of an arm in a thunder storm; and so he lays there, mumbling mad curses at the heavens, and lamenting how he bedded a Negress and sired a mongrel on the occasion of his own misspent youth. His is the confession of a man not even wanting redemption, so much as an opportunity to writhe in the sin all his own.
But that memory holds his attention only so long. This far down the road the old sins lose their flavor; indeed, even their ability to inspire reminiscences of the past; until there is nothing left but a vague, unsettling listlessness that is a kind of spiritual lobotomy. And that is hell; black silence; soul shut in herself.
The Old Man rolls onto his belly; slithers over to me on his one remaining elbow; stares blankly into my worn out face with a pair of elongated cat’s eyes that are as dark as the void; briefly remembers why he is there (an epiphany in his dead gray matter that is expressed as a sudden creasing of his wax forehead and a backward tilt of his bobble head); and unlocks my handcuffs with his key.
He leaves me to loosen the straps about my ankles. The last I ever see of him, he is slithering away from the motel and into the death in his stone heart.
The Old Man is gone, but I am not alone. I still feel the weight of a heavy sunset sky; the dead coons staring at me with their bulging eyes; even the dark leather briefcase by my feet; everything pressuring me to go about my business in Room 13, before the snake hiss of retreating thunder above me returns with a vengeance to zap one limb after another until finally I pull the cursed trigger.
And there is little time left. Ol’ Pete is paying the tab; and though there is no longer a manager to mail an invoice up to the pink pearly gates, it will not be too long before an angel with the Heavenly Human Resources Bureau assigns another racist shmuck to this backwater post. Every cog needs another to keep the celestial wheels turning, and so it is only a matter of time, hard to measure admittedly when time is stood still, before some other coot is stooping his tired back at the log, glancing up at his work shift clock, and muttering cranky curse words in reaction to the fact that I have not yet left my room for the long road.
I remove the room key from my mouth, take up the briefcase, and run to my motel room as fast as I can with a pair of shriveled lungs in my chest. I pick up speed towards the end; the air feeling more substantial as it flows down my windpipe; the lungs ballooning to cough out the dust that had been compressed into sediment in my bowels; the life energy streaming through every one of my veins like primordial waters bursting through a dam; so that by the time I insert the room key and turn the doorknob, I am a man at the very top of his physical, mental, and even spiritual health; a new man able to carry out his old business; a new man whose brain parts and blood soon will be smashed into a headboard.
I slam the door behind me. I lean against the door to catch my last wind.
It is pitch black in here, but I know the layout like the back of my hands.
It is always the same motel room; a replica of the motel room at the end of the hall where I had backhanded a whore so hard she had not crawled out of the bathroom, but instead had had the sheer audacity to change herself into an unctuous mess of tits and ass in a blood soaked dress; a replica of the twin bed to which I had sought refuge after determining that the whore has lost her faint pulse as much as her seductive charm; a replica of the headboard against which I laid my head, while sharing an illicit kiss with the muzzle of a revolver; and it is never going to change, no matter how long and far I drive down this highway.
I make sure that the curtain over the air conditioning unit is pulled tight. I do not want the room to be any darker than it is already; rather, I sense that, even with the door shut and bolted behind me, the bulging coon eyes outside in the great wide open are watching me. And so is the God or the angel that burst the Old Man’s arm off his shoulder. And so is whoever replaces the Old Man at a front desk no more than thirty paces from where I am now standing in the dark.
Perhaps they have been watching me all along. Perhaps I have been very wrong in presuming that my suicide could be my very own; that there had been ever a real cloak of privacy in how I had chosen to skip out on the steady march of time and consequence; that the deed had not been recorded in the heavenly log and that the angels on high had had no opportunity to sneer at my expense, like spoiled princes chiding a court jester forced to dance before their old man.
I cannot tell about the past. All that I know in every fiber of my dead life is that right here and right now, in this corner of time suspended, and in a tiny, dark motel room this far down the highway, they are watching me for no other reason than to pop out a final squirt in their trousers before they are cut down; their stiff penises poking out from their limp bodies so as to be able to fire just as I pull my trigger; their swollen faces contorted into an orgasmic pleasure not ever seen in real sex, but intimated in the sick fantasies veiled behind curtains.
Normally, I turn on the lamp at this moment; but this time I keep myself in the dark in the hope that somehow they will not see my after all, or at least not see me as clearly as when I had eaten my revolver in the glare of that same lamp. I hope that this sullen darkness provides more than an illusion of privacy.
I drop my briefcase on the foot of the twin bed. I slump over it like a sad father checking on his sick son; unlatch it; and trace my right index finger over the cold revolver and the sharp bullet, a blind man reading his final braille, and a haunted seer mumbling his last prophecy in how he is moving that one finger, the trigger finger, the poking God in His eye while on the way to hellfire finger.
Normally, I step into the bathroom at this time. I see the unctuous mess of whore flesh on the floor; her long red hairs flowing into the toilet water; her black and blue eyes staring back at me from the base of the toilet; her breasts, still inflated balloons popping out from behind a crimson red fuck me dress, not heaving deliciously, but rather holding up nipples that remain defiantly stiff for no other reason than to titillate me right now; her pubic hair exposed, because she had been holding her skirt above her waist when I had backhanded her, and her dead fingers continue to clutch at her hem; every one of those curly hairs a dirty crimson red on account of the blood streaming from the left corner of her lower lip and down the inside of her dress. I check her pulse; hold back a single tear that is about to fall from my right eye; and return to the twin bed with the heavy thought in mind that there is no true option now than to commit suicide.
But I do not turn toward the bathroom. I have seen it all before and shall again at the next motel, no doubt; and, anyway, I am distracted by the bulging coon eyes; the eyes camouflaged in blackness; the eyes that can see even what I do not want them to see. I cannot get out of my own head, because I sense all at once that they are as much in my mind as out in the great wide open, and as a result I am paralyzed from moving forward with the suicidal business at hand.
I switch on the alarm clock radio next to the lamp. Like the shift clock in the front office, the time here switches randomly from one hour and minute to another hour and minute. When time stands still, it is as much any time of the day or the night as it is the moment the time had stopped; the distinction from one second to another breaking down; the fullness of all times in this one time.
I do not pay attention to the flashing numbers on the digital screen. I am distracted enough by those who would presume to invade my privacy. I want to listen to the one radio station that can be picked up this far down the highway.
The station broadcasts a continuous loop of reruns of Coast to Coast AM, an interview show focused on extraterrestrials, conspiracy theories, and creepy boogeymen of one stripe or another. It is mindless fun; and that is what I really need at this moment, just mindless fun that may allow me to forget that I am a court jester entertaining that mercurial Queen of Hearts in Alice’s Wonderland; a Queen of Hearts expressed not as a fat, mannish woman in her crown and her robe, but as an untold number of coons hanging from gnarled trees; a Queen of Hearts that sounds in my ear as if plantation slaves laughing around a campfire.
George Noory is listening to a hillbilly truck driver describe his horrifying close encounter with a group of extraterrestrial grays on a deserted highway. It is the kind of story heard often on that show, and yet it never fails to scare the chastity out of a boy or the sexual prowess out of a man. It is just plain creepy, no matter if the story is true or not, to imagine graying dwarves with light bulb heads and elongated, feline eyes just hauling a strong man out of the cab of his truck, or as is the case here blasting the windshield to join with him in the cab.
So maybe that’s the grays, the hillbilly truck driver concludes his tale on the radio. Maybe they’re Time Cops; keeping us honest; making us tow the line so that every hour counts. I don’t know. But I’ll tell you something: I made my old lady put out that damned cat; just toss the fur ball into the gutter; ‘cause I see at once that it had the same cat eyes as them grays; and even worse it was watching me at home, watching me at home, watching me at home, watching…
I make up that last part of his testimonial; my mind stuck on that insight like a needle on a broken record; because, in the end, that is what we all share in this world, whether we are hillbilly truck drivers still living, or salesmen now dead. We are all being watched. We are all robbed of our privacy, especially at that last moment. We are all court jesters taking our turns before a sadist God.
Cursed Time Cops, I snarl. They’re watching me, not just to get their old jollies, but to make sure I am on schedule, as if the trains in heaven cannot run on time otherwise. And why should I oblige them? What’s truly in it for me, but a mess that I need to clean up and another long drag down an endless highway?
I switch off the radio. I have heard enough to figure out what to do next.
I am going to do nothing; that’s it, nothing; not even cradle the revolver in my hands, nor taste the cold muzzle on my lips, nor think ahead of time how the inflamed gunpowder will taste in the back of my throat as the bullet severs my brainstem and punches a heaping fistful of bone and brain into the sleeping angel headboard behind me. I have a motel room at my disposal; simple décor, admittedly, but all expenses paid by the second-in-command; no snack bar, no room service, no internet, but an alarm clock radio that works well enough and a mattress that feel absolutely sublime after a million years or so on a highway.
And what are they going to do about it? Zap me with thunder; rain down upon my head the punishment of Sodom and Gomorrah; eviscerate me like they did Hiroshima on that fateful morning; all because I refuse to do that tired song and dance that tickles their warm bellies like nothing else? When all is said and done, is any such punishment all that different from what I would do to myself, if I followed through with their wish? At least, if they strike me down in a burst of divine wrath, then they will be forced to get off their fat butts to be amused at my expense; and that alone tips the celestial scales my way if only one time.
The alarm clock stops flickering madly from one time to another. I watch as it flips from 7:05 to 7:06 to 7:07. I almost can feel time moving forward, like a ship that lifts her anchor and slides into a tide; and though it is as pitch black as ever in my room, I almost can sense the purple light outside receding before an onslaught of impenetrable darkness; the world descending into a frozen and starless night; even the memory of sunset seeming unreal under this doom veil, like the silly daydream of a little girl after she has matured into her whoredom.
There is no doubt in my mind; but the very idea of time moving forward; one second following its predecessor in a chronological progression that goes on until the fat lady sings; is enough of a novelty this far down the road that I step over to the window and pull aside the curtain. Sure enough, even though there is no other light out there than the high, neon sign by the side of the highway, I can see that the air is moving again; just a small breeze fanning dry sand across asphalt; but a whirlwind in comparison to the stale stillness of when the march of time has been stopped in its tracks. There is life again out in that cold night.
I decide to return to my bed, when I make out the distinct engine roar of a ’66 Mustang barreling down the highway at a breakneck speed. It is just a soft buzz at first; but in contrast to the total nothingness that has been the norm on this road since I first pulled the trigger in Room 13 at 7:05PM, it sounds like the orgasmic scream of jet engines whistling passed the sound barrier and tearing a new asshole in every window and eardrum within fifty miles of the winged fury.
I watch the high beams floating in the darkness. I know that they are not going to travel any further down this highway than Room 13 of the Eternal Rest Motel; and as soon as I am able to see the lipstick red paint on the ’66 Mustang, I know who is dropping by to visit and why she is here after so many long years.
The ’66 Mustang brakes in a cloud of sand and dust in the parking stall in front of my room. The driver is not subtle; not trying to sneak up on me; but in retrospect, she never had had a soft touch in her vast repertoire of sexy moves.
Frankly, that is precisely why she had been able to rock my world in the fleeting months of my youth. She had been old enough to be my mother; a sexy slut trailer park version of the Mrs. Robinson fantasy that plays such a huge role in the imagination of so many nineteen-year-old boys; and though she had been the hussy wife of the Old Man as long as most anyone could remember, she had been young enough to be his daughter (and, some old timers suspected, indeed had been sired from his loins); a hidden scandal in her sultry interludes with me as much as a public scandal in her strange life with her husband; a red headed, buxom heart stealer who worked the Texaco Gas and Grill with her old man the morning shift and then waited tables (and deflowered blushing boys) at an IHOP in town the afternoon and evening shifts; and yet more a mystery than a run of the mill, two-bit, hussy whore, especially in how she roared out of town around the same time her old man slipped on dried rat turds and gave up his sad ghost.
We had not ended our two-step on a high note, unless my knee smashing against her mouth and nose could be considered a romantic pirouette. That had been the night her old man tried to kill me. And ever since that fateful night at the Texaco Gas and Grill, I had had no other passion than to find her, or even a slight reflection of her in the eyes of another whore, and to leave her for dead.
Because the only way I can love Lana is to look down upon her fucked up corpse and to shed a tear for all that potential wasted in a tattered dress and a pool of blood. That is what passes for love on the road; an indecency when the fat bitch wife is fast asleep in our marital bed; a garish, cosmetic mask above a pair of balloons; a voluptuous flesh pot snug as a smashed bug inside a bordello red dress; a sick and twisted lie mumbled by painted lips, while those same lips are caressing the last timid sweat beads of boyish charm down there; a sad lust that assumes the lofty airs of love but is really no more than a fantasy spent as soon as it is indulged; a masturbatory release forgotten as soon as the old toilet has been flushed; a vague something or other in a middle aged salesman’s mind that is going to be lost altogether, unless another hussy hen is beaten black and blue in a dirty motel room and that same salesman finally severs his brainstem; no guts and no glory; a final swan song for a love conceived in a kitchen closet, where the door is shut tight, and the light is turned off, so no one else can see.
Lana keeps the engine and the headlights on. She waddles in her low cut dress out from her muscle car without bothering to close her driver’s side door, so that there is an urgency in her behavior that is as alarming as it is ridiculous. Her balloon breasts boing upward with every one of her forward steps, and I am sure that with one of those boings she is going to lift into the air and float away like a hot air balloon. Only the sheer size and weight of her red bouffant is able to keep her rolling hips and chicken legs from soaring back to the dark heavens.
I watch her from behind my curtain, as she coifs her unbelievable hair in front of an imaginary mirror on my door. She bends forward ever so slightly and knocks, while a breeze lifts the hem of her dress over the back of her big knees to reveal buttery calves squished inside of a pair of stringy pantyhose. Hers is a soft and decadent knock; the kind not meant to be heard by anyone but the sex starved man waiting for her on the other side; that is out of place with the fast and awkward manner by which she approached the door. And precisely because it is so out of place it seems contrived, as if a hooker insisting I’m the only one.
I answer the three knocks without switching on the lamp. My door creaks on hinges that have been beaten down by gray sand and dust since before time.
It is as if we are meeting again in the IHOP kitchen closet to share a final kiss; one more indecent flouting of the Old Testament God; one more rapturous entangling of sweat and heartbeats that is all bombast but avails nothing; sickly sweet abandon in the sterile lusts; hungers unfulfilled, so that they gnaw in the dark corners of the mind over the years and inspire the bits of wretched excess here and there that make it into the unsolved crime files, like news clippings in a misplaced scrapbook, or like half memories sprinkled into a forgettable chat, all the pretense of treasuring something but without an actual resolve to do so.
Lana is a shadow image against the backdrop of intense headlights. I am able to make out her curves; and when I reach out to touch her face, I can feel how her nose is crooked and her upper lip is scarred from the previous time we had visited. But, otherwise, she is a blank slate into which I can project my old and sordid dreams; a pond for a narcissistic nineteen-year-old boy; a ghost of a past life for a middle aged man sliding into the forward march of time. This far down the highway, it is impossible to tell if she is a shadow image of salvation, or damnation, or something futile and indeterminate, like a sad ghost in limbo, or for that matter if there is truly any difference at all between those realities.
Oh, RJ, how I long for your taste on my wet lips, Lana whispers with that sickly sweet abandon of a stereotype in a cheap romance paperback. I’ve been driving the winds from the four corners of the earth just in search of your kiss, and I beg of you not to restrain me from the resolve of my lustful heart. Let me claw at your sweat and gnaw at your manhood like a silly, gorgon beast in heat.
Her words are downright saccharine; obviously insincere; but I am not so angry about that as I am about her playful reference to a goofy nickname that I had hoped to forget. RJ is in reference to RJ Cola. She had christened me such, because I had fizzed like RJ Cola whenever she had given me a kiss down there.
She must sense my anger, because she returns again to that old memory.
Oh, RJ, let me taste your fizz, Lana pleads in a coy grin that I cannot see so much as sense. Let it drip down my chin like the morning dew. Let it be that sweet honeycomb puddle into which I skip with my bare feet. Oh, RJ, I beg you to let me indulge every stiff inch of your manly soul. Oh, RJ, RJ, RJ, how I lust!
Lana leaps out from the glare of the headlights and embraces me. She is a dark form; a Rubenesque shadow topped by a bouffant hairdo that appears to be teetering precariously above her forehead like an Indian headdress; her two, enormous balloons spongy; her low cut gown buttery smooth; everything about her body and soul mushy, like wet clay that can be formed to fit any sweet and sordid fantasy. And yet she is holding me in a strong grip; her fingers laced very tight about my back; her left cheek glued so tightly against my chest that I can imagine her face just melting into my heart; so that I wonder who really is able to control who in this ongoing dance of ours. Maybe we are equally tormentors and victims; enthralled with the sin that we seduce in one another; enraptured by the very fact that ours is a lust that must be experienced on the dark side of the moon; and yet also tired by what we have become for one another; she the coy grin, or the fluttery eyelashes, or the shimmering breasts that I see in a lot of cheap whores over the years and that drive me to smack them until they are as pretty outside as they are inside; and me, or more precisely my knee, a keen reminder of the busted nose and the scarred upper lip that mar even the cheap beauty with which she had been able to turn heads once upon a time. Maybe in time every embrace is perverted into serpents coiling about one another in the most vicious of death grips; nubile lusts twisting into haggard corruption; a big, beautiful world before two lovers turning into a seedy motel room after sunset.
And so she is here; first to be loved; then to be smacked so hard her soft head bursts like a juicy watermelon against a toilet and her limbs convulse on a blood puddle; the drama turning into a black comedy about midway through an oft repeated show and then, when I lay against a headboard and kiss my muzzle goodnight, concluding as a farce. She is here in the same way that the stale air outside had been an incentive to get into this motel room; a force of nature for no other reason than to inspire me to go about my business; a final push that is going to drive me to the suicide that I had decided to forgo just minutes ago. In that respect, and by the strange law of morality that prevails this far down the highway, she is as much an angel of mercy as a devil in disguise; a redeemer as much as a destroyer; since what is salvation down here but the chance to clean up the mess yet again and to return to the highway in search of the next motel.
No doubt, she is as much a cock tease as ever. Just her close proximity is inspiring a blood throb down there that I have not felt in untold miles down the highway; an excited remembrance of the boy that I had been the night before I left for the swamps of Vietnam; a momentary whiff of the boundless possibility in life that I had presumed once to be mine for the taking; a break in the cloud that allows the sunrise to bathe everything in the soft and still light of new life.
But I have made up my mind. I am not going to pull the trigger tonight or any future night, because I am not going to be the fool any longer for them, no matter how much I want to throw her onto the bed and to pull her red fuck me gown over her face, no matter how much I want to release my manhood in that soiled gopher hole of hers, no matter how much I want to see her dead on cold, blood soaked tiles. Why should I give them the satisfaction of those theatrics as the lead up to the main event? Why should I give them a sad dog and pony show that ends with both the dog and the pony turning into beast corpses on a stage?
I push her away from me. I am as stunned by my defiance as she is; and, for a while, we can do no more than just stare into each other’s black shadows.
I know why you’re here, I manage finally to blurt into the strange silence that is between us. No doubt for the same reason you’ve always been there for me; waiting for me in the kitchen closet; seducing me out from my safety zone with a wink and a nod; and that is to do the one sport that is natural for a lady; to make a man mad; to drive him to drink, and to smack whores, and to kiss his muzzle just as the sun is lost to the night; in a nutshell, to be a nasty bitch that can never be forgotten, even when the lust has been replaced by complacency, and the love has been shown to be as untruthful as every other sick perversion.
Let me be your nasty bitch, Lana pleads. Smack me around; reopen that old wound; hate the fact that I’m that dirty penny that just keeps coming back into your life. And then, after you’ve shown me who’s the man, eat your bullet while imagining my corpse in the bathroom. Hate me as you fall into the black, and then lust for me, when you are back on that road and all by your lonesome.
It’s over, I insist. I’m no longer a dancing coon for the likes of them. And I’m no longer your little amusement, either. Your old man is a one armed snake slithering aimlessly in the sand dunes right now. Why don’t you be a good wife, search for your hubby out there in the darkness, and join him in his damnation?
There’s no more time for him; Lana wails, while folding her mushy hands into prayer. And there’s no more time for you, either; no more time to right all the wrongs; no more time to loosen what you have knotted; no more time to be a chaste boy who decides not to take up with a married older woman after all. I reckon the afterlife for a suicide is just one vicious rape after another, so you can either resist, or you can be smart, open your legs, and enjoy that hard ride for what it’s worth. And smacking me around a little bit is just a fringe benefit, an extra to put a sad grin on your face, and since when do you refuse a freebie?
It’s over, I insist even more forcefully. If they want to see me dead, then they’re going to have to kill me themselves; strike me down from the sky; send a thug carrying a crowbar over to this room; whatever their sick minds set upon for the task. I may not have been a good man, at least not by their moral code; but even a condemned man is allowed to be alone a moment before they watch him do a lap dance on an electric chair. But there has not been a moment since I arrived here that I have not felt them laughing at my expense; not one second that I could call my own; not one flicker of the absolute solitude that I deserve.
I’ll give you what you deserve; Lana chuckles as if a mischievous girl who has not yet grown out of her freckles. I’ll give you that and then so much more.
She falls to her knees and grabs hungrily for my crotch. Her hands are so unctuous that I imagine her to be a lathery sow with a voracious mouth for pork and white sauce; the living wanting nothing more than to gnaw on its dead self and to complete the marriage of heaven and hell; the moment a peculiar blend of sexual release and horror that cannot but rip out and devour any sane minds, defecating them along with the rest of the useless gunk against headboards and leaving behind nothing but that mad hopelessness that is the death of old souls.
I recoil back to the bathroom, as her butterfingers slide about my flaccid cock. I snap back at her like a limp-wristed faggot aghast at the prospect of her mouth wrapped snugly about his cock. I just want to be back in the dark womb, sucking at my own thumb until there is no skin, and gnawing on my own bones.
I cannot see the alarm clock from the bathroom doorway, but I guess ten minutes have passed since the clock began to progress chronologically from the drop dead time of 7:05. I am ten minutes beyond when I had ended my life in a rush of misspent passion, and that means that the dead whore in the bathroom; her head propped against the base of the toilet; her hair drenched in the stinky toilet water; her eyes staring into eternity with the same clumsy smirk in them that had pushed me over the edge; has been bleeding red crimson into smooth, white tiles for about fifteen minutes now. She had sprouted it from the back of her head like a geyser for a minute or so and then had peed it from her mouth, ears, and even breasts (hard to tell because of the color of her dress); the slow glunk glunk pee of an old man; until I had stepped out of the way to make what I had thought then would be my great escape. By now, there cannot be a whole lot of blood left in her; and the blood puddle must be large enough to form into waves by the gravitational pull of the moon. But with this butterball bitch from the past now clawing rapaciously for my penis, it is hard for me to tell for sure.
I find out soon enough, when my heels slip on the blood, and I fall into a mushy corpse with a clumsy smirk etched on her face. I can feel her big breasts behind the back of my head. They are not as large as Lana’s; only Carol Doda is in the same category as the small town hussy who had deflowered me; but they make fine enough pillows. I suppose that I could have stayed there forever, but for the persistence of that butterball bitch, and the sure memory that the dead whore behind me in observing the whole scene with her clumsy smirk eyes. She is as much one of them as the coons on the trees, and the Old Man, and the Old Testament God who rules over these parts with mad angels and thunder strikes.
Lana drops to her knees; splashing stinky blood into my dry mouth in the process; and buries her face in my crotch. I cannot see any of this, because it is even darker in the bathroom; but I can feel her teeth gnawing on my pubic hair like a witch biting off a wart from soft skin. I am so repulsed that I vomit all of the blood in my mouth, and add some of my own chunky bile for good measure.
Get off me, I scream. This is worse than suicide.
You can end it any time you want, Lana blurts out through the blood and the pubic hair now clogging the back of her throat. All you gotta do is complete your old business, clean up your mess, and skedaddle before the fat bitch sings.
I am tempted. Lana really is an odious beast this far from the little slice of Americana we used to call home. She is a Siren turned Gorgon; a voluptuous, dried up toad held down by nothing, but the fiery red devil bouffant that is her pride and joy even though the hairdo has been out of style since about the time of the Weather Underground; and she is what lust becomes if unrestrained; the appetite that cannot be satiated; the mad howl against the blue moon; the sad and whimpering corpse masked behind orgasmic fury in the seedy backrooms of the universe. She will not leave me in privacy, until I am devoured and burped.
And so she is one of them, too. Indeed, she is the chief one of them; the harlot behind the divine throne; the Salome nudging the heartstrings of a Herod too limp in his old age to think much for Himself any longer; the hippy waitress at the local IHOP who connives me away from my innocence just so she can see me in my worst moment, and laugh, and point her finger, and defile my suicide into something unclean. I would like to think that this is her revenge for a knee I once planted into the middle of her face; but she had started her hunt when I had been no more than seeded soil in an embryonic sack. She had started it my lifetime ago; and she is going to end it right now, stuff me sound and then hoist me above her mental mantle, if I do not get the fuck off of this clammy whore, push Lana out of my way (or maybe even knee her lips yet again), and drive on.
She must be able to read my mind, because she looks up from her feast, spits out what feels like a bloody hairpiece onto my stomach, and laughs in the sugar sweet fashion of a blushing girl. I cannot see any of this of course, except as a nauseating nightmare playing itself out on the screen behind my dim eyes.
Oh, Sweet Baby RJ, don’t you know? Lana asks me with just a tinge of an old hag’s sarcasm in her sugar sweet voice. There’s no more time for driving on that long road to China; no more time even for whorin’ it up with me; just time enough to do your business and to call it a night. What do you say, sugar sweet?
I say fuck off, you hillbilly hussy, I scream myself devil red in the face. It doesn’t matter what little chew toy is turning you on down there. I’m not going to kiss my muzzle tonight, not tomorrow night, not ever again. The Big Show on the Eternal Boob Tube is over; the Star-Spangled Banner is being played on that screen; and soon there isn’t going to be anything to watch but the test pattern.
She does not say another word. She just stands up and looks down on me with an expression that I imagine is utter contempt. I cannot truly see anything at all, but a black shadow against blackness; a slate against which I can and do project my worst fears; a private hatred playing itself out in public humiliation.
I squirm all over the mushy corpse and the slippery blood for what seems an eternity, but I manage to stand on my knees beside what I sense is the cold, hard sink. I am not there very long, before Lana balances the celestial scales by smashing her left knee into my face. I hear a deafening crunch; taste a strange blend of warm blood and cooper; feel teeth swimming in and out of that murky pond of bile that used to be a mouth; and flare my nostrils to take in the ochre smell of beaten flesh. I do not feel physical pain; maybe the shock needs to fall away first; but I am overwhelmed by the swarming bee stings of the worst kind of humiliating defeat. I would shrivel up and then die, if I had not died already.
But I do not shrivel. Instead, I fall back into the mushy corpse; my heavy bobble head squishing in between a pair of blood pillows that used to be warm, inviting breasts; my arms falling to the sides like a pickled drunk stretching out to every corner of his bed in the vague hope that somehow this languid posture will diminish the hangover yet to come; my legs soaking indifferently in the sick sea of blood that is just everywhere, not even reacting when a crimson red goo splashes over the side of a calf or seeps through a pant leg to penetrate the leg inside of it; my whole body suggesting a drowsy giant, so that my idiot slowness alone seems to be winding time down, if not in the dead universe all about me, then certainly in the universe that exists within my own imagination; and, right now anyway, the line between the real and the imaginary is beside the point in a domain of defeated men and powers and principalities that like to hurt them.
The next thing I know I am reclining in a sand dune beneath a black sky.
I feel a desert wind blowing against the right side of my body. It is strong but surprisingly lukewarm in its temperature; inspiring neither a cold shiver nor a breakout of sweat; a gray blandness that ruffles my shirt and then snaps on to its last destination somewhere in the impenetrable blackness to the left of me, so that the overall impression is that I am not much of an obstacle at all in that existential drama that is winding itself down in the sand and the air around me.
I sense at first that I am stuck inside of a dream; a nightmarish twist in a head that has been pummeled by a knee and forced to rest on the bosom of my last victim; but when I sit up on my elbows and observe my Delta 88 fading into the same blackness that has been creeping over my telltale soul since the night before I left for Vietnam, I know that this is no more a dream than my defeated life has been. The loss is all too real; the sense of falling away all too palpable; and I would cry out my last few tears, if the despair had not been so familiar in every fiber of what is left of me. But it is familiar; my one and only intimate, if truth be told; and so the end is even more real to me than the sad life that had preceded it; a stark truth, when everything else had been a convenient lie; and a lasting impression of dried sand on cracked lips, as my soul sinks into its hole.
I look out to the horizon in every direction. There is a brilliant fire there that reminds me of the burning KKK crosses side by side, a hateful flame that is vanquishing, but not purifying, leaving sin in its aftermath and living despair for all the ages in the void that is outside of space and time. And the fire is coming closer with every dead breath that I exhale; shoving the horizons toward a final existential point in my third eye; the whole collapsing into the psychic one, and in the process showing my self-absorbed godhead to be a small and pouty thing.
I observe a solitary headlight approaching me from inside these timeless, sterile flames. I cannot hear its engine through the wolf howl of desert wind all about me, but I can sense by its jittery motion that it is a motorcycle headlight speeding down what is left of the highway. It is the light beam from the last of the many rescue missions that have been offered unto me by that divine sadist; that miscreant toad shrouded in eternal glory; who veils His judgment in mercy and then accepts the incense and the hallelujahs like a wife beater may accept a good citizenship medal or a murderer may accept praise for saving a sick boy.
The motorcyclist swerves off of the highway in a cloud of dust, and stops where my Delta 88 used to be parked. He is a muscleman, busting at the seams of his highway patrol uniform, kicking up the sand in front of him with the idiot swagger of John Wayne lollygagging over to his campfire after a long afternoon of lynching Indians and shooting men in black hats; his macho man exterior, the contemptuous snarl on his lips, the dead eyes behind those dark sunglasses that he wears day and night, all of these affectations are the very totality of his life in the service of the law. He is the heartless SS bastard who farts on cue just as he is closing the door to the gas chamber; the good ol’ boy who snickers just as he is tossing the rope over the tree limb; the bitch who grabs a hold of the sore cock and twists, until her nineteen-year-old stud cries uncle the rest of his life.
He wears an abnormally large helmet; and when he removes it, I can see why. He has the light bulb head of an extraterrestrial gray; his queer sunglasses shaped as cat’s eyes, so as to cover totally the elongated eyes behind them; his nose no more than a stub; his contemptuous snarl no more than the thin lips an old knife might carve into a rotten jack-o-lantern. He is a Time Cop, like one of the beasts that the hillbilly truck driver had mentioned on Coast to Coast AM; a merciless enforcer of the law of space and of time that is the basis of all of the other natural, moral, and ethical laws; a fascist who makes sure that the trains run on time, that the social security checks arrive on the third Wednesday, and that no schmuck gets away with defying the intricate and fine tuned clockwork.
He hands me my briefcase. I am not surprised to see it, since I guess that I have known always that everything else could vanish in a twinkle, but I would still be lugging around that old ball and chain when all had been said and done.
There is no more time, the Time Cop snarls.
He is right. The old fires have reached what had been the gravel turn off to the Eternal Rest Motel. Soon, they will ravish me, and my own time will end.
I sever my brainstem with a bullet. There is no physical pain it turns out.
And I roar my Delta 88 into the setting sun, and I never look back again.