Stealing Time

         Randall is alone in his 1969 Oldsmobile Delta 88. 

         Apart from an occasional big rig rolling out from the blackness in front of him and swooshing hot wind and soot over the left side of his face; a blur along the port sides of their trailers spelling out Piggly Wiggly or Coca Cola just inside of the yellow fan of his left headlight; his is the only car on a two-lane highway winding and sloping into an unincorporated hell swamp populated more by road kill than by God fearing, Bible thumping, American taxpayers. 

         It is dark; pitch black; a half hour or so beyond the last bell; and the star groupings in the endless sky are quivering like inebriated gnats over an exposed tomb; scavenging off of the yellow headlights; and leaving behind nothing at all but a brooding fear that the next bend in the highway may reveal the last brick wall in the long and sordid life of a night road traveler. 

         Because that is where the life of a night road traveler invariably ends up when all is said and done; somewhere around the dark bend in the old highway; the car hood collapsed into an accordion; the cabin smashed inward on all sides into a box of suffocated screams; and the burnt oil coated over the sour stench of decomposing flesh in a manner that seems to lessen the nauseating sting of a violent death, so that the fragrance left behind is listless and cold, like the soft breaths of a melancholic ghost wandering down the side of his endless highway.

         Randall leans his heavy head through the opened driver’s side window on occasion. He senses vaguely that the hot air slapping against his left cheek, and fluttering his left eye in the manner of a reel snaking through the innards of an overheating projector, will shake, rattle, and roll the whiskey out of his system before he makes it back to his old pillow an hour or so beyond the next sunrise.

         He leans back against his torn leather seat; the foam pushed out in many directions, when he presses the full weight of his back against the surface; and he stretches into a lumbering yawn; more drunk than tired; heavy eyelids fallen into puffy cheeks and pulsed awake again by an occasional pothole on the road, only to settle back into that half asleep stare when the obstruction turns out to be nothing worthy of his immediate attention. He is just uncomfortable enough not to doze off completely and not to sway his Olds off of the highway.

         There is a red idiot light blinking on his dashboard; something to do with something not working just right, but not so broken down that he cannot return to his chunky monkey wife of thirty some odd years, his nondescript tract home on a corner lot of nondescript suburbia, and his little cubicle at a life insurance brokerage where he cold calls people and urges them to get a piece of his rock; and since the white dome light has been broken pretty much since he drove his claptrap off of the used car lot, there is nothing but that blinking red idiot light to keep the cabin from being totally consumed in blackness. 

         It is a bloodshot eye that tells him that everything is going to be all right on this long and windy road, so long as it is still blinking back at him. It is a real friend; the kind that never winces when Randall stuffs his flask under his driver seat; the good sport that will be with him still when he swerves too fast around that last bend and couples his own fate with the rest of the old highway ghosts.

         That is not likely to happen tonight. The Olds is chugging down the road, like a senile grandma in soiled diapers; awkward spurts forward, followed by an inebriated sag to the side; and, every once in a while, a sick crouch on the rear tires that farts out a purple blue stench or an occasional dust bunny. It is never going to pick up enough speed to round that last bend. It is just going to slug its exhaust pipe round every bend in front of it until it passes out on the driveway.

         And Randall will have no idea how much time he and his Olds have stolen this night; how many long hours have breezed by as no more than odd moments of reflection here or there, or as catnaps taken when the road really seemed to be straight enough, or as sips of flask whiskey while slinking low on the seat, as if hiding out from an illusory highway patrolman watching him from the big sky.

         He will have an idea that something has happened, when some other sad and lonely night he and his Olds round that last bend; not sure what, but pissed off that his ghost hand is not substantial enough to grab a hold of that flask and to retrieve it from the car wreckage that is just everywhere; but, until then, he and his Olds will just steal away the night hours and turn them into the elusive, half assed, and disquieting memories that are the mental meat and potatoes of hangovers; memories passed off as unreal; moments as fragments from dreams.

         Randall switches on his radio. He turns the dial from static to static; just a few unrelated musical notes in the mix of radio frequency screams; and then, in an epiphany that is so sudden it nearly splits his forehead, he remembers the FM cannot reach him this far out from civilization, like a lighthouse beacon that is scattered by the sea fog and then is swallowed up completely by the nautical miles in between it and the crow’s nest. He will not be reeled back by Madonna loving him like a virgin or by Tina Turner not needing another hero. 

         And so he flips over to the AM dial. He encounters just more of the same static; except now a few pastors hailing Gawwd and Jeeesus in the mix of radio frequency screams; and is about to give up, when he finally stumbles upon that one show that can be heard so well no matter the miles from home as to be the comfortable voice of an old buddy sitting in the passenger seat and assisting his fellow night owl in stealing away the long and lonely hours: Coast to Coast AM.

         Ah, Art Bell, Randall says to himself, while relaxing into his dumb smile.

         And then he remembers that George Noory is the weeknight host and has been for several years. He sighs; a sound reminiscent of a mushy fart that is too warm and heavy to seep out from inside his trousers; and he remembers that a good many years have been stolen since being the 1983 Salesman of the Year in his region; a good many years squandered along roads just like this one; a good many years set aside and forgotten by that Great Underwriter in the Starry Sky, as if not lived enough to be accounted in writing up his life insurance policy; all the years stolen and spent with little to show for it, but a lazy, fat, mushy sigh.

         West of the Rockies, you’re next on Coast to Coast AM, George says with that radio announcer enthusiasm of his that puts the illiterate hayseed caller in the same exalted category as a respected astrophysicist. 

         Hi…uh…Am I on? The caller may be from “West of the Rockies,” but he is slow as a hick from Texarkana; his drawl so labored it sounds as if it is molasses drooling off of his lower lip; his big head no doubt even now drenched in sweat; and his tussled hair baked beneath a ball cap that reads: Best Ass in the Whole Damned Trailer Park, U Betcha!

         Yes, George answers without messing up his hair. You’re on Open Lines.

         My name is…uh…Ernie…yessir…just Ernie, the caller stumbles on his thick drool for a while, as if a horse jumping out from the gate and then immediately slipping and sliding on the racetrack, and then gives up on his sagging lower lip.

         Ernie is silent for a few seconds, which is an eternity on the radio.

         Go ahead, Just Ernie, George says, as if he is speaking to a Kindergartner with a cleft lip. Coast to Coast AM is your family. Think of me as Uncle George.

         So you see, I’m on Highway 99 near Fresno; Ernie bolts on with his story.

         Ah, I was right, Randall mumbles. Fresno is just Texarkana West.

         Why don’t you blow your big rig and say ‘hello’ from Fresno? George asks in his radio announcer voice. 

         Sure enough, Ernie is a truck driver. He pulls down on his big rig horn; an up-tempo melody from Dixiethat calls to mind The Dukes of Hazard; and rips a Hee Haw toot out from his sagging lower lip that would have made Minnie Pearl proud. He is proof positive that infants can be pleased with just a simple noise.

         So you see, I’m on Highway 99 near Fresno; Ernie starts again, though he is much less nervous this time. I drive a Coors truck (pronounced Ka-Oars); only packing lukewarm piss beer….

         Oh, we cannot say that word; George scolds Ernie in the sad voice of the Kindergartner teacher who looks at her little munchkin and says Oopsy Woopsy, if she does something bad. Now, remember, Coast to Coast AM is your family in Radio Land. Would you talk that way to your Uncle George?

         So you see, I’m on Highway 99 near Fresno; Ernie sighs and starts again. I drive a Coors truck (pronounced Ka-Oars); only packing lukewarm…pi…uh…well, let me see…okay…not so good beer…but folks depend upon me to service family friendly mini-marts all the ways from Sacramento to Bakersfield. So you see, all I’m hauling is like life or death for some folks. What are they gonna do when all them folks show up for their Powerball and Marlboro fix at 9AM sharp, but then there is no Coors in the frig? Sort of like missing out on their Cheerios. So I stop for nothing, not even the Man sometimes, ‘cause there’s like a drop-off time at each mini-mart; 10:30 is the first stop in West Sac, trash city full of damn nig….

         Oh, we cannot say that word; George scolds Ernie.

         So I stop for nothing, not even the Man sometimes, ‘cause there’s like a drop-off time at each mini-mart; Ernie repeats himself hesitantly, like he is not altogether certain which word had been profane. 10:30 is the first stop in West Sac, trash city full of damn…oh yeah…well, let me see…okay…Afirkan American nig…I mean, Afirkan Americans…and 6:00 is the last stop in Bakersfield…maybe seems a lot of time, but there’s unloading at each stop, and cig breaks at them rest stops; always watching for them queers at them rest stops; silly Sodom and Gomorrah types ain’t so silly when they creep up on you and cry out like mama banshees. So you see, I have no time to spare when I’m on Highway 99 one year ago this very day; and in my headlights I see a line of little guys standing across the highway. They all look the same; small, big heads, no peckers…I mean…not a bit of man skin…so I’m thinking that they’re Mexicans…lot of them types here too, you know, almost as many as them Afirkan Americans…and I must slow my rig, ‘cause the Man will charge you for vehicular manslaughter even if the dead guy on the pavement is a Mexican…go figure…so I stop and sound my horn; only a hope and a prayer that Dixie will scare them off, ‘cause that’s all I have right then, a hope and a prayer; but they just climb up the hood; so small they all be up there at the same time; and stare at me through the windshield. And that is when my ticker stops, ‘cause they’re not Mexicans…at least none I’ve ever seen this side the Rio Grande…they’re heads are like light bulbs…there’s even a glow in their skin, sort of like a moon tan instead of a suntan…and the biggest pair of cat eyes you ever seen…all black and stretching to the back of their heads…and only a stump for a nose, like they’ve been in too many bar fights…and a pair of tiny fish lips that look like they’re always getting ready to kiss you…not much in the arms and the legs; and, like I said, not a bit of man skin; but they’re strong anyways; and so they kick through the windshield; and climb into the cabin one by one; feeling me up like horny girls at a drive-in; even putting something stiff in my mouth, which is kind of queer when you really think about it, sort of like San Francisco queer, and then the next thing I know I’m falling into my seat not just an inch or two, but miles and miles down into the darkness; and here’s the really weird part, it’s like they’re taking back the time I’ve stolen from them. I know it makes no sense, but more times than I can count on my two hands, I’ve finished my shift, taken my regular stool at Flo’s, winked for a shot of Old Jack Daniels in my coffee, and thought that the eight hours just seemed to fly by me like…I don’t know…one or maybe two hours…like I had stolen the other hours…I don’t know…well, let me see…six or seven…and just packed them away. Sort of like I’m keeping the stolen hours in my back pocket. And the little buggers; the Mexicans who are not Mexicans; at least none I’ve ever seen this side of the Rio Grande; well, now I know that they’re them Grays; anyways, them Grays really reach into my back pocket and take back all the hours I’ve stolen; lots of hours that had been hidden, even forgotten, are now exposed in that creepy darkness that is miles and miles inside of my seat; no one else can see it way down there but me…nothing but me and the stolen hours held out in front of me…so that as fast as everything had passed before, now everything passes slow and syrup like and in a way that I cannot ever forget it. The next thing I know I’m turning the key in my ignition. The windshield is back to normal…at least them Grays were Christian enough to fix what they broke…unlike them Afirkan Americans kicking in my windows in West Sac and running away like hyenas a few years ago…and, when I look down at my watch, I see that only a minute has passed, since I had braked the rig. So maybe it had been a dream. After all, even a Super Christian just slain in the spirit could not fix my windshield in a minute; okay maybe five minutes, but not one; but I felt as if I had been sitting there for years; decades even; since the first day I sat behind the wheel of a rig and blew my Dixie horn for all the pretty girls driving the Old Route 66. I gave it all back; all the stolen hours; but it took the longest minute in history, at least my own history, for me to empty my back packet and hand it all over to the Grays. So maybe that’s the Grays; 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 it was watching me at home; making sure I don’t steal no more hours; even when I’m watching Danica on the speedway. So we gotta earn our hours and fess up to every one of them.

         So you encountered the Grays? George asks, as if he had not heard much of anything over the past few minutes except a vague reference to the peculiar outer space aliens that are a constant topic of discussion on Coast to Coast AM.

         So you see, I’m on Highway 99 near Fresno; Ernie sighs and starts again.

         Randall switches off the radio. He does not want to hear about the Grays all over again; and there is something really creepy about Time Cops pulling an unsuspecting night road traveller over to the side of the road. In a strange way, the whole idea of it just hits too close to a vulnerable valve in his lonely heart, like a dagger stabbing through his chest and tickling the muscle linings in there.

         Another big rig rolls out from the blackness in front of him; its enormous front bumper braced by a lipstick red grille shaped like kissing lips; its bug eyed headlights an alluring purple blue that calls to mind the painted pupils of a sick whore after closing time; sexy precisely in its cheap vulnerability; a pouty fuck me face that is likely to be slapped black and blue before the next sunrise; and then, as the trailer swooshes through the left headlight of the Delta 88, an ugly splash of red letters that reads Girls Gone Wildand an outline of kissing lesbian nymphs. The big rig toots a horn that sounds like a woman’s orgasm ending in a squawk; and then it is gone, no more than a bitch slap of hot air against his left cheek, and a musty blend of perfumed exhaust seeping into his leather seats.

         Randall loses his dumb grin. He sees several psycho bitch whores flashing before his eyes; images that appear at first to be seared into his old windshield by a special projector hidden amidst the clutter in his backseat; and then, with a subtle shift of his own mind, images that appear to be bleeding out from that blank screen behind his eyes; pouty lips on long faces; sleepy eyes beaten black and blue, but still teasing another fifty dollars out from his back pocket; all the pathos of a Siren revealing herself to be a Gorgon; and yet, when she is wailing in a corner of a cheap motel room, a woman with no more history to her than a cardboard cutout on a stage; a prop with an unwanted baby at home and a half baked pimp on her ass; just another sob story to milk dollars out from his cock.

         Casualties of a night road traveller; these whores left behind; these sluts hanging around the parking lots of cheap motels, clicking their high heels up to his Delta 88, swaying their hips, and batting their eyes, so that he is a nineteen year old boy once more stealing kisses in the kitchen with the married waitress at the Ho-Jo in town; cupping her left breast; watching her false eyelashes shut when she purrs like a slinky sex kitten; and, for the first time in his life, feeling like a man, as he seduces a blowjob in the broom closet from a married woman twice his age. Nineteen years old again, whenever he slaps a bitch whore into a motel room lamp; nineteen years old again, whenever he snaps the folded bills out from her nicotine stained fingers, and pushes her into the bed, because she does not look up at him before she swallows; nineteen years old again, when he continues down the long and windy road as if nothing had happened and allows the next six or eight hours to pass by as if one or two; a middle aged salesman, but stealing enough hours here or there to be once more the trigger happy cum squirt of his youth; the star athlete at his high school who had never heard of a Viet Cong Gook; the southern boy who scared young girls out of their petticoats by jumping out from behind them and letting loose his comic version of the Old Rebel Yell (a War Cry ending in a Tarzan Scream); the inveterate tease who had not yet lost his faith in love, lust, poetry, and silly songs beside untamed rivers.

         It has been a while. Most of the cheap motels; the trucker stops with the shag carpets, the lava lamps, the coin operated beds, the aquarium water beds filled with goldfish, the rooms paid by the night or by the hour; the last havens left for chain smokers, alcoholics, and perverts to indulge their creepy sins; the last stops on the way to Hell, where any bits of hope and charity still beating in a naïve heart can be dashed asunder by the snarl of the front desk clerk, or the clenched fist of the trucker cub egging for a fight, or the lip of a smart ass slut; most of these finer establishments along this particular stretch of asphalt have been closed, or have been targeted by the cops so many times that the hookers have set up shop somewhere else, or have been bought and transformed by one of the family friendly hotel chains into a business that is much too respectable.

         Randall still manages to steal most of the hours in an all-night road trip; collapsing onto his pillow with only a vague sense of how much time had passed to get there; but the tool of his crime now is a whiskey flask, instead of a cock.

         He takes a few sips from his flask and imagines Old Jack Daniels spurting inside of his skull like geysers released from small pores in his blood vessels and knocking over the blank screen behind his eyes; the images of silly psycho bitch whores still bleeding out from the screen, but no longer observable by his inner eyes, as the screen is laying on its side and facing up to his parietal bone; and a mellow groove washes out from his temples and falls over his entire body. He is a dumb grin once more; leaning his head in and out of the open window to take in the hot air; and stretching his back into the cracks of his creaky leather seat.

         Time passes. Maybe another hour; but, even if so, then it feels like a lost minute, while chugging mindlessly down the windy slope that leads into further darkness. Maybe another big rig passes him; swooshing a breeze mixed with old asphalt and oil against his left cheek; but, even if so, then he has no memory in his tired and worn out noggin of the incident. Even Girls Gone Wild is fading, as if a dream snippet from a past lifetime down the very same snake coil highway.

         He makes out a battered sign in his headlights: Beulah County. The Land of Milk and Honey. Pastor Freedom’s First Baptist, Salvation Hall, Sunday 9AM.

         There is another battered sign; this one also punctured by bullet holes; a hundred yards or so inside the county line: This is a Dry County. Leviticus 10:9. So if you are looking for sin, then just keep on trucking. Beulah White Knights.

         This is where it all started; his first nineteen years; his snug honeycomb, before Uncle Sam sent him a draft notice in the Summer of 1969 and he started to steal as many hours here or there as he could; hours turned into minutes in a PBR chugging down a gook river; years turned into evenings in front of the boob tube, picking at a TV Dinner, and turning away from his chunky monkey wife as she digs through the box of See’s Candies to find the ones without the icky nuts that scratch her throat; and decades turned into moments, a slap of a whore in a cheap motel room, a twist of a slut nipple until it bleeds, a cranky spurt from his Delta 88 engine, as he pulls out of the motel lot and back onto the highway.

         And this is the part of his all-nighters where he usually steals the most of his hours; the road straightening just enough so that he can drive on in the kind of waking coma that reminds him subtly of being in the missionary position with his chunky monkey wife (an anniversary obligation for sure, and once in a while after passing out at a Fourth of July barbecue party) and of listening to the top salesman of the year at the annual gabfest drone on about winning motivation; and the air remaining so muggy and still that he is not sure that there has been any forward motion at all, until suddenly he dips into his wing of the sprawling, mind numbing prison yard known as Suburbia USA.

         He expects much the same this time; and even reclines his neck into the leather seat for a momentary snore or two at 55 MPH; when thick rain sprinkles onto his windshield; splats that he first imagines to be the gift droppings of one of the strange swamp birds that infest this part of the country like locusts from a late night Cecil B. DeMille film; but then, soon enough, a persistent waterfall streaming down the ruddy mud that had been caked to the roof of his Delta 88.

         What the hell? He mumbles, while switching on his windshield wiper and squinting through the droopy mud faces that reappear as soon as the wiper has wiped the slate clean. I would have sworn there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. 

         And, indeed, there had not been; but as soon as he had passed the bullet punctured sign reminding him that this is a dry county, the endless sea of stars; twinkling gnats blanketing a tomb; had been replaced by gurgling storm clouds; thunder rolling through a syrupy cauldron; and now thick rain battering upon all that sin that has driven passed the highway signs and invaded a slice of heaven.

         A yellow idiot light flashes beside the red idiot light. He is running out of gas; and when the flashing yellow light turns red, which can occur any time, he will be stranded on a remote highway at the mercy of a surprise thunder storm.

         What the fuck? He mumbles; and he has reason to swear, because he had filled the big gas tank to the very rim just before starting out on his return trip.

         Maybe it is a gas leak. He is driving a forty-four year old gas guzzler that the EPA wants to designate as a Hazmat (and probably will, if the Kenyan in the White House has his way before the end of his second term). Its tired hoses are sputtering and leaking all the time, like the limp man skin inside the diapers of a seasoned citizen. It is only a matter of time before it busts a gasket, spits out a mushroom cloud of exhaust, and sags to its last death on the side of the road.

         Goddamned Arab; Randall mumbles, as he remembers the Arab with the dancing eyes and the cherubic smile at the service station assuring him that his Delta 88 is in tip top shape; even better than a dead Jew, the Arab offers while opening his beefy camel jockey arms to lock him in a bear hug; and will be able to guzzle Saudi gas, and to pass faked smog tests, another forty-four years. The Al-Qaeda Sand Nigger pumped me pretty, and I didn’t even get a reach around.

         He hardly can see through his windshield; and the hot rain is pressing too hard for him to lean his face through his open window; but he does not need to look anyway. He has driven this stretch of Beulah County hundreds of times. He knows all too well that the one and only gas station within a hundred miles had been closed by the state after the Old Man had been found stuffed inside of his pantry and half eaten by screaming rats. He had tripped on dried rat shit, while rummaging about for rock gut, the good ol’ boy coroner (also town veterinarian and Justice of the Peace) had determined. The pantry door had been shut, and then bolted three times, by a gust of wind (the Act of Jehovah God, blessed be His Name, who is righteously pissed that the Old Man had never seen fit to limp into a Wednesday night temperance salvation meeting). And the Old Man’s wife what’s her name; the lippy waitress working over at Ho-Jo’s; had skipped town, not on account of having something to do with the death of her Old Man (since, naturally, that would have implied foul play, when there had not been any foul play, blessed be His Name), but on account of being driven wild by her periods; oozing lusts, the good ol’ boy coroner, veterinarian, and Justice of the Peace is on record as describing them; the kind that drives a Christian Woman to Roman Popery; or even miscegenation, if it is a bad enough case; and leaves her lonely and destitute in the back alleys of Old Sodom or at the devil shrines in Babylon.

         The Texaco Gas and Grill had been abandoned a decade or so; one of the two gas pumps stolen in the middle of the night, no doubt to be the decorative feature inside of a parked double wide; the other beaten down by the wind and the sun into a ghost rattle of steel along the side of the highway; its hose every now and then snaking out to the asphalt and, when the wind rose with the hand of a Righteous God, snapping against the windshields of sinful motorists. All the white boards of the A frame home, gas station, and grill had sagged inward like the belly of a Dust Bowl Arky, the old timers had snickered. The oval window in the attic; a third eye staring down at the gas pumps; had been shattered by the same Righteous God; and the bordello red curtain (the same color as the oozing lust of a scandalous woman, the good ol’ boy coroner, veterinarian, and Justice of the Peace had explained over grits at the Ho-Jo’s) had fluttered through the opening, until someone had seen fit to take a high ladder to the outer wall and to tear the wicked velvet (no doubt purchased, cha-ching, from out of the sick, grubby stubs of a Kike or an A-Rab in Old Sodom) off of the tension rod. And on that overhang sheltering the one remaining gas pump, the Old Man’s welcoming sign had swung in the breeze; creaking in a manner reminiscent of the sound of crackling bones; and, in the end, fading into an unreadable scribble. But all the old timers in caps and overalls who had saddled up to the counter to wolf down the Old Man’s fried bacon fat and grits, and to sneak a little peek and a wink at what’s her name’s tight rump, could recall what had been written on that sign: Trust your car…and your gut…to the man who wears the Texaco Star

         The Good Christian Men who had been too hung over (an affliction in the head and the belly known as the Devil Shits and exorcised by Pastor Freedom in his back office in return for a tax deductible donation into the Jesus Saves box) to make it to the Texaco Gas and Grill before noon could catch a glimpse of the same tight rump at the Ho-Jo’s after the work bell. That rump had taught many young squirts the mysteries of the birds and the bees; sometimes, if they were really lucky sons of bitches, in the course of the actual exchange of pump fluids in the broom closet beside the kitchen; but, usually, in their bucking bronco by a wild stream dreams; the kind that robs the mad dog stupidity from their eyes just long enough for them to let out a wistful sigh; and the kind that inspires in their hearts either a capacity for love poetry, or a penchant for beating up silly psycho bitch whores in cheap motel rooms, depending upon their gift for verse.

         But then, sometime around 1981 or 1982, and after becoming such a sad eyesore that even the trailer park crowd had started to show up to the Board of Supervisor meetings to object, the state had razed the sick ghost into the mud. 

         Today, the Old Man is a decomposed skeleton six feet under; his bones in intimate proximity with the bones of other derelicts (drunks, drug addicts, sissy boys, and Mormons); heaved unceremoniously into Beggar’s Pit by a “slow” son of the good ol’ boy coroner, veterinarian, and Justice of the Peace (“slow,” not because he is dumb, but because everyone suspects that he carries more than a dash of mongrel blood in his veins) within hours of being discovered stuffed and half eaten in his pantry; and his wife presumably still out there, screaming wild in the manner of a bloodletting hyena, and spreading her thick thighs to lure all manner of sinful men; men who are of a questionable race, or men who are not saved (pronounced Saaave-Ud), or men who have had the gumption to graduate from high school and then to go on to college (institution of high learnin’ all of the old timers refer to as a Queer School); so that God only knows what kind of seeds are sprouting inside of that old lust slit of hers. Some count up the years, and they claim that she must be an old cow by now; her blood pump no more in this lifetime than a rusted spigot; her wild eyes deadened into the clueless look of a woman who no longer has a reason to live; but that very same good ol’ boy coroner, veterinarian, and Justice of the Peace (now a toothless coot who has a designated table of his own at Ho-Jo’s, though he does not go there much since Uncle Sam swooped in on his boom and forced that fine eating establishment to serve food to niggers and mongrels) corrects them. He says that it is a scientific fact that a whore never loses her oozing lusts; that she keeps on pumping blood even when stooped and shriveled on a wheelchair; and that she can shove out a baby even when dead and six feet under; the half-breed chewing its way out of her pine coffin, clawing a tunnel through the wet earth, and crawling about the graveyard in search of other whore babies. These whore babies hide out in gray shadows, live off of whatever has been tossed into the dumpsters, and are later adopted by well meaning, but clueless, Christian folk. They grow up to be limp wristed, Democrat faggots in tight britches, bopping to jungle bunny tunes, and inspiring wanton thoughts inside the mushy heads of pink ribbons and lace girls.

         That’s the thing about faggots, the toothless coot reasons. It’s not just a whoring in a butthole that offends. It’s the queer ideas they impart to our girls.

         Tell me about it, Randall would respond, if he had the luxury of reclining at a table at Ho-Jo’s within earshot of the toothless coot. I’ve had to mete out plenty of attitude adjustments over the years to psycho bitch whores who open their lipstick lips and utter all sorts of queer ideas. I do not remember much of what I have done, since many of those hours have been stolen and packed away somewhere; but I know at least that my knuckles have cracked open a few eggs and left behind rotten yolks for the charcoal darkies to wipe up in the morning; and, I suppose, that must mean something when all has been uttered and done.

         Yes, that is what Randall would say to the toothless coot. And as a score of other old men in overalls and caps saddled over to his table to listen to what he has to say, he would say a lot more; stretch out the truth with a yarn, when necessary; even make up some tales out of whole cloth; anything just to steal a few hours and to convert them into a few minutes of idyll chat over hot coffee.

         But he is far astride from a table at that fine eating establishment; and a toothless coot is nowhere to be seen or heard in the unforeseen rain splattering over his windshield, unless he happens to be one of the ruddy mud gnomes that droop in front of his bloodshot eyes after the wiper has wiped the slate; a soft-headed fantasy, no doubt; but one that may not be too far from the truth given how we all end up as shit unearthed from graves and splatted onto windshields.

         Randall snarls at the flickering yellow light. He knows that it flickers just at one speed, until it turns red, and the car stalls wherever it happens to be at that moment. But it sure seems to be flickering faster; like the tail of an ornery jackrabbit getting ready to brandish its blood stained snaggletooth and to jump Helter Skelter for whatever may remain of his man skin; and has no other mind, nothing in him at all, but to lean even further into his leather seat, as if he can be so far removed from that idiot light as to be impervious to what it portends.

         He sees his cellular phone on the passenger seat; and, with a loud sigh of relief, he speed dials his chunky monkey wife. She will be fast asleep; a fatty in hair curlers snoring on her side of the bed, while still clutching a Hershey bar in her right hand; but at least she will get his message at sunrise and call for help.

         But there is no reception; not even loud static; and so he tosses it aside.

         Randall stares blankly into the rain splats on his windshield; intending to keep his bloodshot eyes away from the ornery jackrabbit tail flickering fast and furious; bracing himself for the inevitable moment that the gas guzzler dies the ignoble death of starvation and neglect; and yet even then managing to steal in a wink or two perhaps as much as another hour of time; the world still no more than a witch’s blend of ink thick blackness and hot rain; broken up by a flash of lightning and a rumble of thunder here or there; but, nevertheless, somewhere in the back of his mind a vague sense that the short hand on the invisible clock; shaped like a sick, grubby stub of a Kike or an A-Rab in Old Sodom, so that as it moves from one hour to the next there is a gross cha-ching echoing off of every one of the planets and stars hidden above the storm clouds; has passed, finally, the halfway mark between midnight and sunrise; a vague sense that inspires no more comfort than he had felt when slapping a psycho bitch whore into a lamp; just another somethingstolen away and sure to be forgotten the next morning.

         And then he catches an unexpected light up ahead; at first, a neon haze that is not wiped away with the mud gnomes as the wiper creaks and jerks over the glass; and then, stark against an ink black slate, a Texaco Star at the top of a sign pole, reeling him in like a beacon from a far, but just visible, lighthouse, and shaking loose in his heart a queer combination of hopefulness and fear that tastes coppery in his mouth and gushes a hot sweat from the crown of his head.

         He chugs his Delta 88 further down the highway, until he sees clearly the pair of old gas pumps beneath an overhang; well, gas pumps that should be old but that sparkle in the red and white glare of the Texaco Star and that seem as if wiped clean and painted only a moment before; and then, looming as a beast in the shadows, an A frame with an oval third eye staring out from an attic; the bordello red curtain drawn; the candlelight inside slithering through the wicked velvet and glowing as if the embers of a dying campfire, so that the A frame on the edge of absolute blackness seems even then to be lumbering into its grave.

         He wants to press on; lead foot his accelerator and chug as far away as is possible from what seems to be a ghost stolen out from the night and left along the side of the highway; just get the hell away from a past glaring back at him; but when he floors the pedal, he gets no reaction but a hacking smoker’s cough and an exhaust plume that dirty browns the blackness in his rearview mirror; a last spit of volcanic ash from a crater surrendering to the long sleep; a groan of spent steel not unlike the collapsing lung of a drowsy psycho bitch whore being pressed into a bed; and, finally, a sluggish roll on four dead tires down the mud and rain soaked road and onto the crunchy gravel of the Texaco service station.

         His headlights beam the sign hanging from the overhang; no longer faded and weather beaten, but stark black lettering against a white background; and, in a fit of nostalgia that almost makes him vomit, he just knows that this is the Texaco Gas and Grill; unearthed from the junkyard grave; a ghost taking on the flesh from which it had been robbed so long ago and defying even the snares of time; a moment just before everything turns sour; the night before the bus trip to Vietnam; the years before looking into the misty eyes of his chunky monkey, taking her fat hands into his, and whispering I do; the decades before the black and blue psycho bitch whores left behind in cheap motel rooms; the lifetime so far back, lost in the foggy dream snippets, smothered beneath stolen hours and forgotten miles, that he feels as if a voyeur of someone else’s past life, a sicko Peeping Randall hiding behind his muddy windshield, while rolling in for a look.

         His Delta 88 dies beside one of the gas pumps. He lets his eyes wander in anxious spurts from one item to the next: the vintage gas pump beside him; the George Wallace poster inside the window by the front door (not at all faded, as would be expected by the march of time, but steely eyes and tense lips in crisp black and white above bold red letters that scream: Let the People Speak); and the pile of newspapers protected from the storm by the overhang and no doubt dropped off by the delivery truck not that long before; and everything similarly bathed in the neon haze that is seeping down from the Texaco Star behind him.

         Someone reopened the Texaco Gas and Grill, he mumbles feebly in a last stab at sanity, while lumbering out of the Delta 88 and over to the newspapers.

         The headline shouts: Men on the Moon. One Small Step for Man

         I’m the man on the man; Randall pouts in disgust, as he decides that this is all a dream, a bit of stolen time perverted by whiskey, a psycho bitch whore.

         Returning to the gas pump, he fumbles for his credit card, while peeping from one vintage item to the next: a lipstick red ’66 Mustang parked to the side of the A frame; a deflated tire leaning against the front of the A frame that has not been in use for decades; a sign nailed above an outhouse door that screams in an angry, blood red scrawl: Whites Only. I don’t care what Earl Warren says.

         Surely, the vintage details may be the bit players in some sort of surreal whiskey dream; but if he has rolled his Delta 88 into a real service station along the highway (albeit one that had not been there when he had driven that same stretch of asphalt only a week earlier); and if the Marxist, Muslim, Homosexual, Usurper is in the White House (a reality that always causes heartburn whenever Randall contemplates it); then there will be a slit and a digital screen upon the face of this gas pump that will read his credit card. 

         And the gas price will be somewhere around $4.00 a gallon, because the Kenyan curtsies to the Saudi King and refuses to approve the Keystone Pipeline.

         But there is no slit for his credit card; no digital screen; not even one of those goddamned politically correct signs that tell you not to smoke by a pump.

         And when he stumbles out from beneath the overhang to stare up at the price sign underneath the Texaco Star; an old fashioned scoreboard with white paper letters and numbers wedged into a tight row; the gas price is a whopping 35 cents a gallon to the public, and 32 cents a gallon if you are wearing proudly your George Wallace and Curtis LeMay Victory button on your best jacket lapel.

         Is this some sort of sick joke? Randall asks himself, as he senses that this may be not so much a whiskey dream as an elaborate practical joke paid for by the shitheads who run Beulah County and set up along the side of this road just to mess with his head. After all, what the hell else do those inbred scalawags in the Board of Supervisors (all of them inbred scalawags because one of them did in fact marry a Yankee, notwithstanding repeated, red-faced denials before the Salvation Hall brethren) have to do but to pull pranks on those who had enough silly horse sense between the ears to leave behind The Land of Milk and Honey?

         But in spite of his growing anger, and the hot rain beating upon his head, he shivers from goose bumps on his arms and hurries back to his Dead Delta 88.

         Of course, he cannot drive anywhere. The Dead Delta 88; a notably sour lemon among lemons; an embarrassment to the other automobiles discarded to the heavenly junkyard; is not known for its ability to start up on an empty tank and to roar down a two-lane nightmare with no other fuels in its leaky cylinders than the driver’s irrational fears. Unless and until it is refueled, it is just a gray heap bathing along with everything else in the gloomy neon of the Texaco Star.

         Except that the Dead Delta 88 does not look gloomy at all.

         Nor is it a gray heap, when you really take a look at it. It is as much of a glistening, lipstick red as the ’66 Mustang; its steel nearly bursting at the seams from the vitality beneath its hood; and its exterior not yet blemished even by a single scratch. And when you open up the driver side door, and see for yourself how the white dome light is working like new, and how the leather is so smooth and polished, well, the very notion that it had been a gray heap all of a sudden seems as Fantasia fanciful as the notion of a Kenyan sitting in the White House.

         This isn’t my car, Randall mumbles, as he slides his hand over the finish.

         Well, son, if it isn’t yours, then whose is it? An old whiskey voice snarls.

         Randall turns on his heels to face an old man; no, not an old man, he has to admit to himself at once, but the Old Man; shuffling over to him from inside the A frame. He cannot otherwise react to what he is seeing with his own eyes, except by grasping at the shirt fabric over his heart and opening his mouth into an unvoiced scream. He is trying to think that there is no such thing as a ghost; that this is all a dream with which he is indulging while still stealing away hours on the open road; that the Old Man is no more than spent rat food inside of the Beggar’s Pit; but even his conscious mind has been stunned into silence, so that he has no choice, but to stand there lamely and to take it all in as if everything that is occurring in front of his bloodshot eyes is somehow more real than he is.

         Did you hear me, boy? The Old Man spits out, as if he is talking to one of the darkies who live still in that part of Beulah County known as Coon Quarters.

         Randall remains speechless, but he has been able to salvage just enough of his conscious mind from the oily gravel in between his loafers to see that the Old Man is a toothless scarecrow draped in his white Texaco Star work uniform; his knees hobbled by arthritis; and his bloodshot sway from side to side; a kind of loopy Texas Two-Step with the invisible gal he stores away in his own surreal whiskey dream; held in check by the loaded shotgun he uses as his cane. 

         The Old Man shoves his face into Randall’s and flares his creaky nostrils; an ugly gesture that seems somehow obscene, like a wild animal having enough of a mind to crow ‘fuck you’ to its prey before digging in its chops; and, like he has unearthed an old memory that seems, strangely, not so old, Randall recalls a bombastic George Wallace snarling: The only four letter words hippies do not know are w-o-r-k and s-o-a-p.

         Except that that makes no sense, because Randall is hardly a hippie, and he is a sixty-three year old man with the kind of flabby tummy and queer comb over that makes him look not a day under seventy. 

         And, goddamn it, he may not be so keen on w-o-r-k anymore, especially since Brother Glenn Beck has made it clear to him over the boob tube that that Kenyan is going to steal away his social security to fund his goony socialist pipe dreams before he turns sixty-five, but he sure as Crimson Hades values s-o-a-p. Indeed, if not for his personal love affair with s-o-a-p, then the chunky monkey would have smelled his trysts in the cheap motels long ago and left him with no more to his name than the Stouffer’s TV Dinners piled one atop the other inside his Frigidaire. He even gets a hard on from the scent of his Palmolive.  

         Okay, long hairs, I’m gonna give you one more time, the Old Man growls, while wiggling his shotgun by his side like he is waking his pet beast for another bout of coon hunting with the boys. 

         Long Hairs? Randall has not had long hair since the afternoon he and the rest of the cattle had been herded into the barbershop at boot camp. He has an odd, but true, memory of the barber; the Drill Instructor had called the old and bespectacled barber ‘Old Buzz,’ but the cattle had to call him ‘Sir, Yes, Sir,’ as he had been a Gunnery Sergeant back in the day; looking down at his victims in the manner of a wire thin Dr. Mengele conversing with his patients and, smiling ever so innocently, asking each of them what haircut they want; and regardless of what is said, going on to shear each of them into naked and timid lambs ripe for the slaughter. He still can hear Old Buzz chuckling and mumbling inanely to himself, as he powers up the heavy clippers and leans over the wide-eyed boys. 

         The Old Man pumps his shotgun, and holds it out in front of his chest and stomach in present arms; the barrel slicing his face into two halves; a mad eye on each side of the barrel glaring at the long hairswith the complete focus and hatred of a predator mentally dehumanizing his prey; and an absolute stillness, a stoic impermeability, spreading out from the shotgun, through his skinny, but incredibly strong, arms, and into every inch of his skeletal frame. The Old Man is a timeless rock; a slight body, but a thick mass of mindless anger just waiting to unleash unfathomable violence when the order is given; an order that, when enunciated, will take flight as an animal roar, or even an instinctual pounce, in his own mind; an order that, when followed, then will see the innocent and the guilty alike clawed into the madness that is a persistent refrain in his sad mind.

         Randall observes all of this in a flash of insight that knocks Old Buzz, and the lambs lining up for the slaughter, out of his mind. He is fumbling to find his tongue still, but at least he is in the here and now and aware that he must give some sort of answer to the Old Man confronting him on the very edge of sanity.

         Are you telling me that you’re some sort of a white coon boy scavenging another man’s wheels? The Old Man inquires, while curling his terse lips into an odd smile that is equally jovial and menacing, so that it is not clear if he is now pulling the leg or revving up to kill the son o’ bitch long hairs.

         It is my car, and it isn’t; Randall stumbles about his own words so grossly that he expects no other end, but a shotgun shell blasting his head off his neck.

         The Old Man keeps his shotgun at present arms; but he tilts his ugly head back and arches his eyebrows in such a manner as to suggest that long hairs has outsmarted him or is too cute for his hippie britches. He does not know what to make of this non-responsive response. But he knows what to do: get even more pissed and take the offensive, first by words, and then by exercising his Second Amendment Right to blast instant lead poison into a trespassing coon or hippie.

         Isn’t that some sort of Summer of Love Zen Shit? The Old Man snickers.

         Oh, no, Randall pleads. It’s just that I’m, uh, tired from the long drive.

         The Old Man squints his eyes in deep thought; and then, without relaxing his odd smile, slides the shotgun back to his side and straightens out his posture in the rote manner of a professional soldier. His only indulgence is in the flaring of his nostrils; an animal lust gesture not in keeping with that surefire precision with which he controls every other part of his body when standing still; a queer indication that, somehow, he is able to smell the fear in the degenerate hippie long hairs who had the misfortune to roll into his dark corner of Crimson Hades.

         Would you like me to filler up, boy? The Old Man asks in his “happy to be of service” voice that would have been able to put Randall at ease, but for that slick twinkle in his eyes that says that he is just getting started with the hippie.

         Randall cannot speak. It is as if “yes, filler up” is a phrase in Swahili that involves way too many clicks and air pops for him to be able to utter right now.

         The Old Man shrugs his shoulders; rolls his tongue inside of his left cheek like he is about to spit out a fat wad of chewing tobacco; and chuckles at a sick thought that passes through his mind like the image of a mangy mutt entangled in a beaver trap or, even better, of a bloated coon boy swinging with his missus from a tree k-i-s-s-i-n-g; a happy-go-lucky chuckle, to be sure; but a menace in those twinkling eyes of his that says that the grisly end is just around the bend.

         He shoves the hose into the Dead Delta 88; eyes long hairs with his “let’s fuck” look; and then laughs off the moment with a gross cackle that sounds like it is being magnified a hundredfold by the hot gusts sliding under the overhang.

         The burst of laughter stirs activity inside the A frame, and Randall slides his left eye in that direction in time to see the front door slam open and reveal a mad whirlwind of lipstick red lace pajamas hanging loosely from two balloons and a beautiful, but cheapened, face far beneath inferno red bouffant hair; no, not really hair, even if in a technical sense the stylized strands slithering out of the scalp could be so designated, but rather kinetic sexuality bobbing about an eager to please head. The madness does not walk, so much as waddle and click over loose gravel; swaying a voluptuous butt that seems to be lathering the hot air behind it with obscene kisses; and caressing the nipples on the two balloons with painted fingernails that glow as devil horns in the neon of the Texaco Star.

         Randall gasps audibly. He had never expected to see his first fuck; no, if truth be told, his first love; even when he had seen glimpses of her in everyone of those silly psycho bitch whores left behind in cheap motels. He had given up on the pulsing green light on the other side of the bay; leaving such sentiments to the likes of a Jay Gatsby; and had resigned himself to the humdrum world of balding salesmen and fatso housewives. Even if his very life had depended upon it, he could not recall the specifics of the last time he indulged his memories of her with a silly psycho bitch whore. He could not recall much of anything at all.

         But there she is in all her sordid glory, not changed an eyelash, since the last time he had seen her, and so very young for a gal who must be over eighty.

         Remember, Randall insists in his own mind, as he stares dumbfounded at the Southern Fried Tart. This is a whiskey dream, or an elaborate practical joke at my expense. The Old Man is dead; scattered bones in a pit; his wife, Lana, is missing and presumed dead; no more than a dream fragment encountered in all those cheap motel rooms over the years; and the Texaco Gas and Grill has been razed to the earth and replaced by weeds and crickets along a remote highway.

         And the Damn Kenyan is in the White House, not Tricky Dick and his Beer Hall Putsch lieutenants, Haldeman and Erlichman. And if he actually could tune into a Top 40 station this far out from civilization, then he would be gagging on his index finger to Justin Bieber, not losing his cocktails to the Fifth Dimension, since, goddamn it, this is the Age of Hope and Change, not the Age of Aquarius.

         That is all fine and good; an admirable nod to sanity; but, as he looks at her this very moment, and sees the strange blend of childish sexuality upon her face that had enticed him into the Ho-Jo’s kitchen closet so many times; a kind of dimpled, little girl innocence that suggests that every squeeze and smooch is tantamount to statutory rape, even though she is more than twice his nineteen years when she starts to share her cigarette breaks with him; he just knows this is her; this is Lana; and this real moment is what he has been stealing out from all those dark and lonely hours on the road transformed into minutes; those sly smirks at the start of a cheap motel date transformed in an instant of time into those backhanded slaps at the end; those years lost in bursts of a whiskey rage.

         And this is what she had worn the last time he had seen her. 

         He remembers it as if it had been yesterday; no, as if it is right this very moment; the memory seeming to bleed out from his bloodshot eyes and to lure him into the scene in front of him; the memory taking on the smooth texture of a mad seduction; the memory basking in the soft shadows of its own indecency.

         He is long hair down the back of a peace symbol T-shirt; underwear that has crusted into the inside lining of faded blue jeans; sandals on feet that have yet to be blemished by all night marches into endless monsoons; and beautiful, crimson lips that curl into a confident smile, whenever he reaches into his blue jeans and gropes a cock that he imagines is even bigger than the erect package of a hung coon; his manhood hard and wet just contemplating his older woman; no, even more salacious, his married older woman; and his lurid thoughts as far from that Navy bus scheduled to pick him up at the depot the next sunrise as is possible for a nineteen year old about to leave home for the first and last time.

         He is waiting for her at his usual stool; the Ho-Jo’s otherwise deserted at this late afternoon hour, except for the town drunk singing an old hobo song to himself in a corner booth, and the fat bitch waitress who just glares iced cubes back at his confident grin and who has no idea that the hippie long hairs sipping a sweet vanilla malt at her counter right now someday will marry her daughter.

         Lana is not on duty this afternoon; and, normally, at this time she would be clucking gossip with the other big red hens at the hair salon. But knowing he is about to leave, she had told him to meet her at their spot; the phrase makes an impression in his blue jeans every time he considers it, which is about every twenty minutes of his awake hours and God knows how many of his sleep hours; and to be ready for the special gift she wants him to take with him to Vietnam. 

         He never drops his confident grin; but as the minutes tick away on an old fashioned Coca Cola clock over the drink counter, he starts to tap his left index finger nervously on his Ho-Jo’s placemat. He sucks a little too rapaciously at his sweet vanilla malt; and with the sound of air bubbles gurgling up his straw, and a vicious look from the fat bitch waitress that is meant to scold him for his lack of table manners, he senses that he has fallen backward from nineteen to nine.

         He almost reaches into his blue jeans to see if his man skin is still there, when painted fingernails playfully flutter a lipstick red scarf in the oval window on the kitchen swivel door. He does not know what to make of it, or even if the velvet bird flap is a sign that is meant for him, since every other rendezvous of theirs has started with Lana swaying the butt and the hips of her scrumptiously tight Ho-Jo’s waitress uniform, looking back at him when she is pretty sure that no one else is aware, and then soft whispering in that sweet and sultry drawl of hers something like Can you help a simple country girl cook her apple muffins?

         But this time it is different. Maybe it is because he is a man now; not yet able to drink or to vote in the Summer of ’69; and still inclined to release much too soon (usually before he manages to take off his underwear); but, regardless of the details, a real man, nonetheless, ‘cause he’s heading off to war (and the prospect of taking a life on a distant battlefield is the surest initiation rite from boyhood to manhood), and he’s mastered the art of leaving a hickey that is not going to be noticed by her Old Man (not all that different from the kind of night battle sweep that takes out a gook target without leaving any mark that can be seen in the morning), and he’s even smuggled a Lone Star into their dry county.

         And so he determines that, indeed, this is a sign meant for him; that the velvet bird flap in the oval window is an acknowledgment of his manhood; and, most importantly, that he is not a nine year old gurgling air bubbles through his straw, but a nineteen year old packing so much white coon meat that he has no choice but to saunter to the closet like John Wayne carrying a load in his pants; a True Grit swagger that cannot but melt away the locks on a chastity belt (not that Lana has ever worn one, so far as he can tell); and a Howdy Partner voiced so much like whiskey rolling over chapped lips that a woman cannot but swoon.

         He pushes through the kitchen swivel door; not caring at that moment, if the fat bitch waitress sees him; and observing the velvet bird flap out from the slight opening between the closet door and the doorway, he pushes through the closet door and knocks Lana into a shelf of dust rags and cleaning fluids. He has just enough of a mind in him at that moment to pull down on the cord attached to the ceiling light bulb, to lick his lips, and to squeeze his big cock into action. 

         In the soft light sifting down from the bulb, Lana’s red bouffant takes on a sepia tone, so that she resembles a scandalous saloon dancer caught inside of a monochrome photograph; a good woman gone astray in a time of lawlessness, vigilante justice, and heroes caressing the cold silver grips of their six-shooters.

         He drops his fingers from his barrel to his grip; groping his testicles, until they feel as hard as the Lone Ranger’s peace pistol; and tilts his head back like the Duke sizing up the Man in the Black Cowboy Hat to be eliminated under the blazing sun of High Noon; a blend of wild west clichés in a barroom brawl in his gray matter; knocking out whatever soft chins and baby teeth may exist still in his mind even after nineteen years of life settling scores and breaking hearts on the range; and then, as the dust clears, revealing himself to be all man, all one hundred percent, full blooded, American White male, the strong and the silent, the lover and the killer, all of this masculine bravado a sizzling porterhouse the likes of which no Christian cunt can ride and no whiskey whore can get enough.

         Lana has donned a dark overcoat that is bursting at the wide lapels from her breathy balloons; her nipples so hard that they must be squirting warm milk through the fabric of the dark overcoat and inviting her younger beau to nuzzle her love juices, until there is nothing left but raw flesh on flesh in sweaty heat; and yet remaining on her Daughter of the Confederacy pedestal, so pretty pure that even the devil’s heart must wilt, her smile reigns as if the very incarnation of chastity; an innocence unblemished; a frail girl just waiting for her first kiss.

         She opens her wide lapels to reveal lipstick red lace pajamas, and he has no more mind than to bury his face in her breasts like a dog’s muzzle in a bowl; his nostrils flaring to take in the sweet rose aroma of female surrender; and his tongue lapping up her love juices like a hungry dog chewing flesh off of a bone.

         They could have stayed that way into eternity; but then she lifts his chin from her balloons, looks longingly into his wet eyes; and kisses him in that way a woman reserves only for the love of her life. It is not their first kiss; but in all the hours stolen since that moment, in all the psycho bitch whores thrown onto beds, in all the Stouffer’s TV Dinners shared beside a chunky monkey chomping on candy bars, it is their only kiss. It is that gift he will steal time to hold dear.

         And then she is gone; escaping out through the back door before that fat bitch waitress should happen to see her; and leaving him with nothing but a sad cock in his hand and a drip on the tip of his nose that he dries on his dirty shirt.

         He never sees her that night, even though he tells her as she is departing through the back door that he will see her one more time before Uncle Sam has taken him by the collar and shoved him off to the jungles of Vietnam. He knows he is never going to see her, even as he is uttering that promise; and she winks back at him as if to say that she knows that to be the truth as much as he does.

         He knows not so much because he does not own a car, since if he desires a set of wheels he can always borrow one from his brother’s auto repair shop in town; nor because he has not yet been as far from home as the Texaco Gas and Grill, since if he desires a map he can get one from his brother’s desk (not hard to find, as his brother wraps his whiskey in township maps and stashes his trove in the top two drawers); but because he is afraid; all one hundred percent, full blooded, American White male, to be sure, but just a scared boy, nevertheless.

         The Old Man has a fierce reputation. He has never seen the reclusive gas and grease man; but ever since hearing the tales in the third grade; schoolyard yarns dabbled here or there with half-truths; the Old Man has loomed large and formidable; a Grim Reaper that lowers the scythe on childhood innocence; and, in the blackest hour of the night, a boogeyman that steals his blissful dreams in a snap of his gnarly fingers and replaces them with queer nightmares and tears.

         He has had to muster a lot of that John Wayne swagger just to frolic in a kitchen closet with the Old Man’s wife (who may be his daughter also, since she is less than half his age and looks like a grown-up version of a red headed squirt that the Old Man had claimed to be his daughter and that had gone missing just around the same time the Lindbergh Baby had captured the headlines). He very much wants to see her one more time; indeed, will smack himself on the cheek the next morning when he leans against the greasy window of the Navy bus and observes his entire world sliding into the past; but in the end, he does not have enough of that hard ass in him yet to drive out to the Texaco Gas and Grill late that night and to tap that floosy butt while the Old Man is snoring beside them.

         Do you intend to pay up, boy? The Old Man breaks into his reminiscence, while hooking the hose back onto the gas pump. Or do you think I run some sort of poorhouse for degenerate hippie long hairs?

         Randall clutches at his heart and leans on the trunk of his car. He acts as if he has been slapped, not so much by the pissed geezer, but by the sultry lady in red standing by her husband and staring at her boy toy as if he just squeezed out a turd behind his trunk. He looks into her face and sees what he imagines is his own: wide-eyed horror, cluelessness, and yet irrational hope that somehow, God only knows, there is a fair explanation for why he is where he is right now.

         You must think you’re a cutie in your Jew pants and peace shirt, the Old Man snarls, while nodding towards Randall’s Levi’s and referring to them in the only manner that would come to the mind of a country hick anti-Semite. 

         The Old Man steps up to his face, but Randall continues to stare at Lana.

         So cutie cute you don’t need to pay me, the Old Man spits in his face.

         What? Randall mumbles, as he begins to descend back down to earth.

         The Old Man pumps his shotgun, and holds it out in front of his chest and stomach in present arms; knocking Randall back a few steps in the process; and scaring a pathetic poodle yelp out from his fear frozen wife behind him. He has so little mind for her then that he seems not to hear her at all. He is a man; all one hundred percent, full blooded, American White male; and he is about to do a man’s business; and, let’s face it, that’s not the time to heed a yapping cunt.

         What? Randall screams, as the shotgun pump slaps him back into reality.

         Where you just about to call me a nigger lover? The Old Man snaps back.

         Leave RC alone, Lana screams in such a shrill voice that the Old Man and Randall both wince, as if the two are hearing sharp fingernails on a blackboard.

         Randall remembers the first time she had called him RC. She had not yet climbed up from her knees, when she had looked up at him and, wiping a string of cum from her chin, had declared that from now on he is her RC; not because those are his initials; but because his man skin fizzes like RC Cola whenever she is down there. In his cocksure nineteen-year-old mind, he had regarded that as a compliment; but now, as the memory plays out in his mind, he is not so sure.

         Woman, mind your tongue, the Old Man scolds her.

         RC is good for it, Lana promises, while taking her husband by his arm and pulling him back towards the gas pump. 

         Do you know this hippie bum? The Old Man turns his wrath toward his red headed wife. Have you been talking to the wrong crowd when you go into town and get your hair all fancy? Have you forgotten how to be my Christian woman?

         Of course not, Lana pleads. I’d never give this boy the time of day, ‘cept that ever since them Yankees demanded that we serve coons, Chuckles has said that we’ve gotta serve white coons, too. All kinda men can eat our burgers and grits, so long as they’re saved. That’s where I post my fence, Chuckles has said, so if any of them Cat’licks and Hindus try to sneak a peek inside we’re to shove them to the curve. But if niggers and hippies are good enough for Jesus, then in all likelihood they’re good enough for Ho-Jo’s. So, yes, I know RC; never in the Biblical way; but by serving him every now and then at the counter. And he’s a hippie bum, no doubt, but he’s always paid the tab and tipped me blessed fine.

         I bet you he tips, the Old Man snarls, as he looks back at the hippie bum.

         RC is good for it, Lana cajoles. Just let him pay the tab and go on home.

         He don’t have a home, the Old Man reasons. Not around here, I reckon. I think he’s from out of town; maybe even from Old Sodom; and he’s passing the time in God’s country to spread a little mischief; maybe a little California weed to our wholesome white boys after dark; and so I reckon if he knows it’s best to get on outta here quick, then he don’t need to be a Coon Christmas decoration; you know, the kind that hangs from a tree; and he can go to Hell another time.

         Yes, Lana hollers. Jesus Himself wouldn’t have been any more merciful.

         I’m a washin’ in the Blood of the Lamb, the Old Man grins pastorally and turns back to the hippie bum. Okay, long hairs; I reckon you’re too groovy to be able to do Yankee Math. So I’ll do it for you. You got 25 gallons of my gas for 35 cents a gallon. That comes out to $8.75. Then, add on the Hippie Bum Tax, and the Long Hairs Surcharge, and that comes out to $100. And coming from a sicko white coon like yourself, that’s not payable in check or credit card. So I suggest you reach into your wallet and find me some Federal Reserve Notes toot sweet.

         Randall reaches for his wallet. He has $35 in bills; and, even though it is not going to do him any good now, at least when he is handed his harp on Cloud Nine he can turn to Karl Malden and tell him triumphantly that he did not leave home without his American Express. 

         He is too overwhelmed to say anything at all. He just looks up at the Old Man with his pleading eyes and drops his wallet onto the gravel.

         I knew it, the Old Man runs back to his victim with remarkable speed for a geezer having to rely upon a shotgun for a cane. I knew it. I knew it. All them white coons are like their nigger cousins, shiftless rejects, cons looking to score at the expense of good Christian folk.

         All of the color flushes out of Randall’s face; and as he takes a step back from the Old Man, he senses that he is on the edge of an endless descent. He is not sure if he wants to stand his ground and take whatever the Old Man intends to dish out, or if he wants to fall back into the dark oblivion.

         I’m a faithful man; saved in the Beulah Piss back before you were even a flip of your father’s wrist; and so I like to think of this as a Biblical opportunity, the Old Man says with all the evil charm of a country hick pastor in a white suit getting ready to urge his sheep to dig deeply into their wallets. 

         Lana screams. Randall feels like he is about to faint. 

         But the Old Man ignores all of this. He is in his element now; a hunter on the last stage of his trek; the prey in his crosshairs; the trigger a wet hymen on the verge of spitting love juice through a barrel; the rest of the world darkened into nonexistence, until the prey is dangling limp from the back of his shoulder.

         The Good Book says turn the other cheek, the Old Man whispers, as if he is saying something profound, while lifting his shotgun barrel and pressing it up against Randall’s right cheek. I reckon when I blast the right side of your face, I am gonna see your left side turn sharp right. And that’s gonna be what my good friend, Pastor Freedom, calls a Jesus Truth; a Jesus Truth blood splattered just everywhere; a Jesus Truth swept away by the storm before my rooster crows; a Jesus Truth that never makes it into any police report, ‘cause the police ‘round here are fine Christian folk and understand we gotta turn cheeks now and then.

         No, Lana screams, as she runs up to her husband and grabs his right arm.

         Woman, what’s the matter with you? The Old Man howls. Goddamn, is it that time of the month again? Are you gonna piss your blood all over my gravel?

         No, Lana pleads, as she catches her husband’s eyes. It’s just that I really think that RC is good for it in another way.

         The Old Man stares into her trembling face, as if he is reading a message that is bubbling through her glossy lips and rouge cheeks; and he relaxes from a murderous scowl to a decadent smirk. He looks like he wants to devour the skin off of her sexy body; tear it off in shreds with his dentures; lick the blood off of her writhing flesh; beast hump her exposed organs; and, in a way, that is much more frightening than his unhinged rampage the prior moment. It is much more intense, since it is who he is beneath the surface: not so much a hunter, though he can raise holy hell with the other boys on an all-night coon hunt just fine, so he’s been told; but a dirty, old man indulging sin behind a bordello red curtain.

         Woman, you tellin’ me you know RC? The Old Man loudly smacks his lips.

         Lana smiles like a harlot in a cheap motel, a twenty-minute woman with the same sultry grin for every John who happens to choose her from among the other girls, sways her butt up to her hippie bum, and caresses his right cheek in her left hand. Her palm is as cold and impersonal as the shotgun barrel; not the mushy warm skin that had been wrapped about his cock so many times; and her ‘fuck me’ grin is so routine, it is as sexy as a circus barker with a sausage belly.

         I’ve never known RC; Lana smirks. But I think we both could get to know him just fine. Teach him what it means to be a fine, upstanding, American Boy.

         The Old Man howls; nearly spitting out his smoke tarred dentures; and in a gesture of wholesome Christian love, he returns the shotgun to his side, grins sheepishly, and reaches out to his wife, as if to state that he is so very sorry for his outburst that he is willing to forsake tobacco and grits an entire day if she is willing in turn to take his hand into hers. 

         And she does. But she also grabs a hold of her hippie bum with her other hand; and the three of them, hand in hand, walk toward the front door.

         I’ll put on the coffee, the Old Man grins. Where gonna have a long night.

         The Three Musketeers step into the restaurant portion of the A frame; a downstairs kitchen and living room that had been converted decades prior into a redneck grill; another loaded shotgun and an antique cash register beside the front door just to make sure the customers do not leave without paying; a Dixie flag centered on the top of a side wall; framed black and white photographs of White Knights posing in front of hung or burnt coons; a KKK take on the vintage Uncle Sam I Want You poster (same old man face, but this time in a white robe with a fiery cross pinned to his heart and with a red, white, and blue stovepipe falling off to the side in favor of a Merlin the Wizard hood); another poster that says Ride with Nathan Bedford Forrest Tonight; and scattered smoke stains and bullet holes left over from the many late night conspiracies planned in this very room. There are a half a dozen round tables spread about the floor; each one a faded white surface that has been ravaged by termites; two of the six seasoned by vomit stains; and against the far wall are three stools, a greasy counter, and a grill that would never pass a state inspection, if indeed the state could find in its ranks a man with enough balls to step into this den of racial pride and gooey hamburgers. There is sawdust spread about the creaky floor that, upon a closer inspection, looks as if it has been sprinkled over by hot menstrual blood not too long before. But grotesque as it is, even that pales in comparison to that vomit-inducing odor of rotten eggs and warm piss that snakes out from the pantry and attaches itself to everything in the ‘grill pit,’ as the old timers prefer to call it.

         Randall does not see any of the details. He is much too stunned to notice anything at all, except how the rain sounds so much more intense when beating down against the corrugated iron sheets that have been laid over termite holes on the A frame roof. It sounds like an endless discharge of machine gun fire in a large echo chamber; a bone rattling amplification that is knocking madness out of sense; and every now and then a wind scream that incites the kind of frozen goose bumps in the tired brain that shatters any capacity for conscious thought and leaves behind nothing, but a drooling village idiot shivering in dark corners.

         He had never stepped inside the Texaco Gas and Grill, and yet he senses that this is all some sort of strange déjà vu experience; a past, no, his past, the likes of which he cannot escape, no matter how many hours he steals along the highway; and, at the same time, an omen of his own future; a future given over to ghosts and faded walls; a corpse riddled by termites; a name as forgotten to an era that elects a Kenyan to the White House as Nathan Bedford Forrest; and, no matter the viciousness of the backhanded slap at the time, a legacy as dead as a blood stain of a silly psycho bitch whore smeared into a cheap motel lamp.

         Randall wants to rush back to his Delta 88 and to take a big swig from his whiskey flask; but then he reasons that as he did not own a Delta 88 back then; indeed, did not have any set of wheels, except for what he could borrow, every now and then, from his brother; the car and the flask out back cannot be his at all. They must belong to some other customer; maybe a guy taking a piss in the Whites Only outhouse; and he must have staggered out here on foot to give his red honey whore a kiss one more time before Uncle Sam grabs a hold of his All-American cock, and then squeezes the last of his love squirts out from his balls.

         What are you thinking? Randall whispers to himself. This is nothing, but a goddamned whiskey dream or a practical joke. I am selling a piece of the rock; living out the rest of my years with a chunky monkey wife; and signing internet petitions every morning to urge my Congressman to impeach the Kenyan. I lose hours here or there, to be sure; but I’ll be damned, if I’m anywhere else, but in the summer of 2013; no doubt about it; no fucking question in my square head.

         By now, Randall’s conversation with himself has turned into a queer rant whispered audibly through haggard breaths; and his host and hostess both have stopped in their tracks to try to make out what he is declaring. There is neither rhyme nor reason in his words; something odd about impeaching a Kenyan (as if a nigger ever could be elected to office) and the summer of 2013 (a space aged Jetsons future); but nothing that cannot be fixed with a smack against the back of the head and a cup of black coffee at the counter. 

         So the Old Man smacks him against the back of his head; leaning upon his shotgun so that he can fall back and give the hippie bum a firm wallop; and the red-headed hussy looks longingly into his daisy eyes, and escorts him to a stool.

         I’ll have no more of that coon talk, the Old Man shouts into his right ear.

         The Old Man’s voice is so loud it feels like another smack. 

         Randall falls forward and leans on the counter. He is still disoriented, to be sure; but the violence inspires another emotional response from somewhere within his psyche with which he has been unaccustomed since he had last taken a hold of a silly psycho bitch whore in a cheap motel room: bleach white faced, red eyed, lip quivering anger; the horned and hooved beast demon that is there in the flesh just a moment before a backhanded slap; and beneath the vitriol, a fear frozen in a meat locker in the mind and preserved as a heavy lump deep in the bowels that will not break down and pass away no matter the change in the circumstances. This blend of anger and fear is a life of its own; jealous of other emotional responses that might lessen its sting; ravenous to spread out from all the pores and to infest the greater world; and, in difficult moments, very much able and willing to focus the mind and to inspire a course of action that is quite amoral, to be sure, but that is most likely to overcome the obstacle. The beast is hideous; but the beast leaves a crying victim in its wake, slinks back onto the black highway, and steals enough hours to pass it off as a fragment of a dream.

         What the fuck? Randall blurts out with just enough seething anger within his voice as to grab the attention of the Old Man and to pull him up to his face.

         What’s wrong, long hairs? The Old Man snarls so up close and personal to his prey that the two of them are virtually kissing. Are you so fucked up on your California Dreamin’ that you can’t understand good country hospitality, when it lands smack against the back of your head? Maybe it’s not your groove to get in outta the rain and to share a cup o’ coffee with your new pals, is that it? Maybe you ain’t a happy coon until you’re hanging buggy eyed from the tree out back.

         This isn’t real; Randall scoffs in a voice that is more scared than pissed.

         Long Hairs don’t think none of this is real; the Old Man winks at his wife.

         No, Randall continues. It’s a dream or a practical joke. I’m just the sorry man on the receiving end of a pie toss. I wipe the banana cream off of my face, you guys laugh your asses off, and then the next thing I can remember I’m back in bed with my wife, tossing and turning, thinking about my sales calls later the same morning, and passing off this side road trip as nothing but my queer mind, up to its old tricks again, raising a little bit of hell before sunrise, and leaving a blood trail behind that no one is ever going to sniff out ‘cause it’s no more real than the stolen time I carry around in my back pocket. I get the last belly laugh just as my alarm clock is going off, and my wife is waddling up from her side of the bed to fetch my coffee, ‘cause I’m the one that gets to say none of this has been real, never has been, never will be, like a millennium in a wink of an eye.

         So then go ahead and belly laugh, the Old Man hollers, as he grabs a hold of the hippie bum’s cock and squeezes. Go ahead and tell me that my hand job is not real. Go ahead and say it, ‘fore I take away your ability to breed with the raccoon in the trash bin out back. Go ahead. Say it. Say it. Say it. Say it. Say it.

         Lana had been slapped hard by Randall’s reference to his wife; the hussy bitch, I’ll kill her, she thinks; but as the cock squeeze gets worse and worse for her nineteen-year-old boy toy, she snaps out of it just enough to shove her mad dog of a husband off of his lame prey and to plead with him to brew the coffee.

         Remember, Lana whispers, as she tenses into the twitching grin of a lady about to do somethingaltogether diva and devious, and stares straight into the inflamed eyes of her husband. We’re gonna let him pay the tab in another way.

         The Old Man seems to remember something from long ago; his festering, creaky-hinged mind opening just enough to take in one of the mildewed ghosts lurking behind the Dixie flag and the KKK posters on the wall; his body relaxing, even in a way looking some decades younger, in the contemplation of a cranky, old sin about to be revisited. He lets himself wallow in this feeling, squeezing a white cock in his grip still, but imagining a black hymen caressed by his fingers; no, not imagining, but remembering; taking out from the shadow a sin intended to be left there even after he has been lowered into the Beggar’s Pit and giving it a chance to quicken his heartbeat and to tingle his man skin beneath the soft and the perfumed. It is just a taste of what he calls ‘nigger heaven,’ just a very brief embrace when no one who matters can see him, but it is enough to etch a sly smirk onto his face and a shrug of his shoulders that says: Why the fuck not?

         So release this bum, Lana sweet-talks her old man. And go make coffee.

         The Old Man blows a kiss at his prey, drops the cock, and shuffles away.

         Oh, a Delta 88, Lana embraces her boy toy and whispers so excitedly she seems as if she is about to have a big orgasm. I didn’t know you had a Delta 88.

         Randall suspects that she is not really referring to his automobile beside the gas pump; but he has questions of his own, and as the Old Man pushes open the pantry door next to the grill, he suspects that right now is his small window of opportunity to ask them. He stares into the eyes of his first love; still cannot believe what he is seeing; and decides that this may be all a dream; no, is very likely a dream that he is indulging while cat napping his way down the highway; but, regardless, he is going to treat it like it is really happening; like she is not going to vanish in his arms; or turn into a green spiked beast from a dark corner of hell; or, even worse, turn into his chunky monkey wife holding a Hershey bar in her fat fingers. If it is real, then he can get real answers to his questions; but if only a dream, then his limitless imagination holds sway, which means that, in the end, this cannot but decline into the surreal madness of subconscious fears; a pastiche of sounds and images that does not make sense to his psychiatrist as he recounts them from his padded cell; a whirlwind of emotions just unearthed from the damp graveyard in his soul and given free reign to tear apart his mind.

         Lana, I can’t believe it’s you, Randall says, while cupping her cheek with his right hand and bringing his lips closer to hers. You have been gone so long. I frankly never thought that I would see you again, at least never in this lifetime.

         I know that it seems like forever, Lana bats her eyelashes and smiles just so sugar and spice and everything nice. But we just smooched a few little hours ago. I guess a short time can be too long sometimes, like a long time can be too short, or something like that.

         No. It has been years, Randall corrects her with that abrupt insistence in his voice that suggests that if he is not literally right on this point, then his frail hold on sanity will slip away altogether. 

         Lana has a troubled look on her face, like she is either hiding something, or she is afraid for the nineteen-year-old boy who is speaking nonsensically just now; but then, realizing that this expression makes her look older, she slaps on another one of her coquettish grins and bats her eyelashes ever so sugar sweet.

         And you look so young, Randall continues. Just like when I last saw you…

         So tell me about your Delta 88; Lana changes the subject. You never told me you were hitched to a gearshift and a set of wheels. How long has the bitch whore…I mean the sleek sexpot out front…been in your life? And how come you never took her out for a spin around town, where people may have noticed her?

         I bought her from a used car lot a while ago, Randall replies haltingly, as he tries to suppress in his own mind the suspicion that she is not referring to his automobile.

         Ah, used, Lana elongates the first letter in used so that it sounds like the cartoony version of eee yew. High mileage; old shock absorbers making for one hell of a bumpy ride; gearshift always stuck on overdrive; tires just worn down to the rims; and, you know you can never trade her in, not even if you give her a spit shine. You’ll just need to dump her on the side of the road with the trash someday; your Dead Delta 88nothing, but a discarded heap; but I’ll be here for you, RC, still pining away for your sugar sweet fizz at the Texaco Gas and Grill.

         What is going on here? Randall asks in the compelling manner of a man in desperate search for a line in a stormy sea.

         My Old Man is getting coffee outta the pantry, Lana responds coyly. And, truth be told, I’m seeing this as an opportunity to get fresh again with what I so love about you. 

         She reaches for his crotch, but he slaps it away. He is still too hurt down there from when the Old Man had squeezed his tonsils. 

         Lana recoils from him; the look on her face like he had unleashed the Big Kahuna of Farts; but then she licks her lips, and squints her sleepy eyes, in that unsettling manner that is as sexy as it is devious. She is the harmless, perfumed puff of feminine allure, and she is at the same time the very wiliest of serpents in the marsh. She is what Adam must have seen when Eve came to him with the forbidden fruit in the palm of her hand and urged him to share a meal with her.

         And you still need to pay your tab, Lana concludes with a devilish wink.

         Look, I have the money, Randall pleads. I cannot believe you don’t have a credit card reader somewhere; but, if not, then I can mail you the cash later.

         There is a crash in the pantry, and the star-crossed lovers turn their eyes in that direction. They are each holding their breaths, not so much in cold fear of what may have happened in there, but in unspoken hope that the Old Man is never going to be stomping out of the pantry with a coffee bean bag in his grip.

         Goddamned rat turds, the Old Man bellows after a while. 

         The star-crossed lovers look at each other like little children about to be paddled; and then they step away from one another; eyes searching sawdust on the floor while heels slide backwards; as if by being apart from one another the one may be spared at the expense of the red hot fury centered upon the other.

         Woman, sweep the rat turds ‘fore I break my neck, the Old Man slaps on her face verbally from inside the pantry. I ain’t gonna ask you again. 

         Randall remembers that the Old Man is found dead in his pantry and that the good ol’ boy coroner, veterinarian, and Justice of the Peace writes that the cause had been a slip and a fall on dried rat shit. He allows himself the subtlest hint of a smile but then drops that altogether when the Old Man storms through the pantry door and slams a coffee bean bag next to his claptrap coffee maker.

         Lana slinks out of his eyesight, grabs a broom, and steps into the pantry.

         Don’t think for a moment that I’m not onto you, long hairs, the Old Man snarls, as he fumbles with the coffee maker. I’ve seen your type. Just a beatnik nigger on the road; a wannabe Jack Kerouac; a pinko shit-disturber with no soil that you can call home; sort of like you came out of the wind and the rain with no more claim to the land than anything else that just washes into the streams.

         I’ll give you my wallet, my driver’s license, my credit cards; Randall says in a composed voice that he hopes will not incite another violent eruption from out of his host. You can hold onto them as collateral, until I mail you the cash…

         The Old Man holds up his right hand in order to stop the hippie bum from finishing his sentence. He grins decadently, as if he is slowly undressing the boy in his mind, and then he is lost entirely in the memory he will take to his grave.

         Little coon hymen feelin’ like a charcoal spark in the mouth; so squirmy; so dried up; dead dark skin cracked to life; the Old Man whispers nonsensically.

         Randall lowers his head. His throat is much too tight for him to continue.

         We let time fly ‘cause we’re hoping we’ll get to the grave faster, not for ourselves, but so that we can bury our sins in there when no one is observing us from behind their curtains, the Old Man continues. We just wanna hurry up and dump our sins in there, and then stand over them, like we’re the judge and the hangman of our own dark moments. But if time flies too fast, it’s sort of like an awful wind that never settles into the dirt; a force with no beginning or end; an ugly thing that tricks the panties off of girls, and sells weed to boys, and incites coons into all sorts of thinkin’ that isn’t good for themselves or anyone else. All this shit, ‘cause a hippie bum like yourself steals so much time on the road that a thousand years is like a wink of an eye, and when that happens there’s no life at all, but confusion, and madness, and niggers demanding rights, and girls just full of lip. So I don’t know what you wanna bury, boy. Maybe a memory of some girl you shouldn’t have loved; or a girl you shitfaced in a fit of rage; but that be no matter to me, ‘cause I’m not gonna let you fly through, as if you were never even here. In my home, you ain’t stealing time. In my bed, you ain’t turning all the hours left in this long and stormy night into what seems like a few minutes. 

         Randall looks up when he hears the bed reference. He can feel his heart, already in overdrive, now starting to beat as if the wheels of any out-of-control train steaming toward a cliff. He wants to clutch at his sick chest yet again, but his right hand feels like a weighted sandbag that cannot be lifted from his side.

         So, you see, I don’t give a rat’s ass about your cash, the Old Man smiles.

         I can pay your tab; Randall just manages to whisper. You have my word…

         What good’s the word of a hippie bum with no mud on his shoes? The Old Man snaps back at him. I was wrong when I said you’re on the road. Truth to be told, you’re not on the road, so much as you’re flying over it, howling in storms like this one, and slipping ‘round the bend ‘fore the cops catch your foul scent.

         Randall remembers the Time Cops described by the hillbilly guest on the radio earlier that same night. He shudders at the thought that they are waiting for him around the bend so that they can reclaim all of the hours he has stolen.

         Lana slips back into the kitchen and finishes preparing the pot of coffee.

         The Old Man slaps her butt, looks back at the bum, and grins like a devil.

         This is insane, Randall mumbles. He’s never going to let me out of here.

         He remembers that the key is still in the ignition. His hosts are both near the coffee maker on the other side of the greasy counter, so unless some other redneck has stepped in out of the rain the coast is clear behind him. If he waits for the two of them to turn their eyes away from him, even for a moment, he’ll be out the door and stumbling into his car before they know what has occurred.

         But then Randall slides his eyes down to that shotgun that the Old Man is still using as a makeshift cane; the silver barrel glistening in the kitchen light; a shaky index finger tapping on and off the trigger; and his heart slithers down to his bowels where it will be shoved out altogether the next time he takes a shit.

         And that could happen any moment. Cold fear is a sex pervert squeezing a sphincter; a chilly finger sliding up the anus to unleash puddles of diarrhea at the most inopportune of moments, such as when a victim tries to escape from a dire situation; a scared shitless literally scared shitless and forced to slip and to slide on his own excrement, just as his hosts take him down for the last time to that grave that has been waiting for him right there since his very first breaths.

         Surely, the Old Man can blast him in the back of his head, before he gets as far as the front door; and furthermore he is mad enough to let loose so close to his inflammable gas pumps, propelling all three of them to that Whites Only heaven he has been imagining since he was a redneck pup, and transforming all of the local lore about the Texaco Gas and Grill instantly into the stuff of ghost wails and spine chills in the middle of the night. The Old Man has a death wish; even more so, has his geezer cock so far inside the ass of the Grim Reaper he is about ready to blow his last wad into a dried up bone hole; and is just grasping at any half-cocked justification to bolt his shotgun and bring on his apocalypse.

         But the Old Man is not going to die tonight, Randall thinks. He is going to slip on his dried rat shit a few years later; probably at the same time Randall is on a mission that never happened in Cambodia and bayoneting a mad gook who is not officially in front of him; and his hussy wife is going to skip this corner of white trash paradise and never be seen again, except in the calculating eyes of psycho bitch whores just before they’ve been backhanded into red hot lamps.

         Okay, so this is not the hour of thy Kingdom come; but so what if Whites Only Jesus is not returning right now to reclaim the sheep from the goats? Does that mean that the Old Man cannot turn his brain into clumpy oatmeal dripping down the front door and order his woman to wipe the sour mess before sunrise?

         And so Randall does not move, hell, he barely breathes, even when he is observing at one point the Old Man berating his wife for doing something stupid with the coffee maker. He just stands there, as his weighted sandbag of a right hand gets heavier by the minute and feels like it is going to drop into the blood splattered sawdust. He cannot hear anything, but the train wheels in his heart, and the whirlwind gusts rattling the front door on its hinges in the manner of a pissed off son o’ bitch demanding to get into the gas and grill when it is closed.

         The next thing he knows the Old Man slides a cup of coffee on the greasy counter over to him. He stares down at what looks like tar bubbling inside of an old, lipstick-stained cup, and he senses a bout of nausea crawling up his throat.

         Don’t stain your long hairs when you’re drinkin’ up, the Old Man laughs.

         Randall does not have a choice, especially since the Old Man is caressing his shotgun cane like a cock that he is just hoping to ejaculate into his face. He closes his eyes, hears the Old Man chuckle in the severe darkness that is behind his shut eyelids, lifts the cup with his shaky left hand (the right hand is still the weighted sandbag stretching into the sawdust), and chews on that crunchy, hot tar stew that passes for coffee at the Texaco Gas and Grill. He is barely able to swallow, when he vomits a clumpy mix of tar and whiskey all over the counter.

         The Old Man stops his inane chuckling. He slams his fist into the vomit.

         Lana gasps and presses up against her balloons, as if she is trying to hold back the warm milk that is ready to piss out from her erect nipples. She seems to be simultaneously alarmed and aroused by that mess ejaculated everywhere.

         I’ll be damned, the Old Man roars. I show my hospitality to a hippie bum ingrate, and this is how you respond. I should know better than to be casting so many fine pearls before swine. But I shall answer for that before God someday. As for now, you need to pay the tab on that cup of coffee you just squandered; and when I factor in the clean up, I’d say you owe me yet another square $100.

         I can pay you, Randall mutters meekly, as he wipes vomit from his chin.

         I reckon you owe me $200 in all, the Old Man snarls. But I never said that you could pay up in cash. You will take care of your debt to me in another way.

         And on that note, Lana breaks into a cheeky smile and runs up to her boy toy like a girl at a carnival claiming her teddy bear prize. 

         Your gonna love the other way, Lana whispers alluringly, as she wipes all of the vomit off of Randall’s chin with a lipstick red napkin from her big bosom.

         I don’t reckon, the Old Man grins. This hippie bum has been covering his eyes behind his long hairs all his life; always grinning like a coon nose deep in a watermelon whenever he steals a few hours here or there to finger a Mary Jane Crotchet in his dreams; just as happy as butter on grits, ‘cause he pretends this life of his has no real consequences; no stops along the road that really matter. But that’s not the way we play. That’s not how we pass the time upstairs in the attic. Locking the door; pulling the curtain; snuffing the candle; knowing there is just a thin line of darkness between ourselves and our fears; crying when we see that there are some ghosts we can’t forget; some we can’t pass off as night visions on a dark road; some we just gotta carry in our hearts, ‘till they devour us alive and spit what is left of our gray carcasses onto the side of the highway.

         Oh, come on, Lana protests playfully. I think he’s got some sizzle in him.

         He’s got sizzle all right, the Old Man laughs. What he’s lacking is a prime rib; something meaty to munch, something that matters, when his dreams fade to black. He’s like a coon on a rope; a big package, straight out and hard; but a couple a farts later, nothing but a limp flank steak. And you ever try riding that dead coon, when we cut him from the tree? He’s not man enough to crease the pink panties you like to wear on Christmas morning. So that’s this bum: nothing but sizzle, nothing that can’t be taken away by a few good o’ boys on the hunt.

         Randall feels like he is going to faint. He cannot focus his thoughts; wild leaps of fantasy born out from the cold fear that has settled in the lining of his gut; except to the extent necessary to think that he would rather die right now than ascend the stairs beside the grill and see firsthand the horror awaiting him in the attic. He just hopes that a head exploding into grimy oatmeal is painless.

         Too consumed in fear to procrastinate any longer, Randall jumps for that shotgun cane that is glistening silver streaks in his bloodshot eyes. He really has no mind to snatch it from the Old Man and to blast his way back into the storm. Rather, his is the desperate leap of a man intending to be shot down cold dead and fed to the rats, as if an injured dog wanting to be bludgeoned between the eyes, or a psycho bitch whore begging for the backside of a hand. He just hopes that it will end; either that he awakens from this dream, or snaps back into the last sleep; because the cold fear eating away at his innards right now is a slow, torturous death; a kind of choking death from ghost hands, except that the grip is not felt about the frail throat, but sensed in the blackest corner of the mind.

         Randall surprises the Old Man, who had never thought that such tenacity could be possible in a long hair no doubt just selling weed and fingering panties like most every other city boy of his generation. 

         As a result, Randall manages to embrace his host’s shoulders, before the Old Man can lift his shotgun to the firing position. This tactical advantage really scares the shit out of Randall, since he had never anticipated that he could get this far before feeling his heavy head blast away from his neck. He is sick to his stomach to be alive still and does not know what to do, except to hold onto his host and hope that one way or another it is all over in the next several seconds.

         The Old Man shuffles backward, and then forward, so that he appears to be the female half in a queer Texas Two Step. He is foaming at the mouth, like he has just arisen from his knees after swallowing lumpy love juice down there.

         Randall inadvertently kicks the shotgun cane off to the side. He does not know that he can run away; and, given his suicidal state of mind then, he likely would not have run for the front door, even if he had realized this opportunity.

         But Lana observes everything; and as much as she fears her husband, she even more so loathes the prospect of losing her secret beau, which she is quite sure will happen if he has a chance to escape back into the dark storm outside. 

         And if that happens, then he’ll be back in the arms of his hussy bitch; an abomination that she imagines to be her mirror reflection; no doubt the kind of cradle robber that gives all ladies a bad name, even among the white trash set.

         And so what’s a sugar and spice girl to do, but to pick up the shotgun, to clutch it against her chest, to bite her lip at the moment of action, and then to ram the stock against the back of his head; dropping her beau like a sack of old potatoes; and throwing the shotgun back into the arms of her clueless husband?

         Randall does not feel any pain. He senses a hot pressure against the back of his head; and then he sees that the Old Man drooling all over his chest is just a spasm of mindless, kinetic energy, before there is nothing at all but complete blackness. He does not think that he will revive himself from this one; perhaps, in the course of the struggle, the Old Man had managed to shoot his head off of his neck; and he does not care, so long as he forgets what it is like to be afraid.

         That is where Randall remains; somewhere in the blackness; until one of his eyes opens seconds later; or maybe centuries later, when he is smack in the middle of one of his future lives, for all that he can surmise; and takes in a pair of silver nostrils. He is too mindless to be afraid of them. He is a baby in a crib; the fullness of his lifetime in every new moment; the next thousand years, and the blink of an eye, the same seamless reality for him; taking in what he senses is a silly new toy that the milk breast life form must have tied above his face as he had been sleeping. He likes being a baby in a crib and wants to remain such.

         And then his mushy head focuses just enough for him to surmise that this is the nose of his chunky monkey wife; the human marshmallow no doubt going to sleep with a silver candy bar in her hand the night before and then smearing her nose and chin with it, while indulging one of her hot-and-bothered dreams; and if that is the case, then he has awakened from a terrible nightmare several hours later; safe in his bed; woozy from a few too many sips of whiskey, but all in all ready to tackle his sales goal for this day and to hit on the front desk girl.

         He is more than a bit pissed that his pillow is so hard. It feels as if he has been sleeping on a hard slab covered with bloody sawdust out in the boondocks somewhere. It needs to be refilled with down, lest he develop a permanent and debilitating kink in the back of his neck in the near future. If his dumb wife had been minding the hearth and the home, instead of stuffing her fat cheeks like a sow about to go into the oven, then his pillow would have been refilled by now.

         Mommy? Randall mutters, as he sits up on his sore elbows and stares into the flaring nostrils of his wife. 

         I ain’t the hussy bitch, Lana snarls, while swallowing another gulp of hot and humid air into her balloons and jabbing the shotgun muzzle into the face of her beau. I’m the lady whose made you into a man; just taught you how to hold your head up high and walk with confidence; even how to leave little hearts all torn up along the wayside. I’ve given you so much lovin’ from somewhere deep inside my pussy; and I reckon that, unless I’m no better than a cheap whore out in one of those cheap motels, your tab with me is a helluva lot more than $200.

         Randall cannot make out anything more distinct than a big, red blur that looks like it is untold miles behind what he now realizes is a muzzle poking into his bloody nose. But he vaguely recognizes the voice. It is like something from a wet dream that he would be much too embarrassed ever to acknowledge to the chunky monkey who shines his shoes and pours out his Wheaties every morning.

         He is remembering the sound of Wheaties falling into his bowl, when the excruciating pain bursts out from an incomprehensible blackness within his sick head and spreads like a sentient wildfire down his spine and out to every one of his nerves; sawing away at the flesh along its path; picking up speed from all of the energy that it is stealing out from him, so that he imagines that it is a devil beast, instead of the senseless anguish that his mind normally associates with a whole body explosion of pain, intent upon eating him into oblivion from inside, and leaving nothing behind but another blood stain in the sawdust. He cries out like a tired and hungry baby in the crib; tired of this sordid lifetime; hungry for the blackness that is supposed to shield him from the devil beasts who feast on worn out and beaten souls. He cannot tell if anything is coming out of his blood and vomit mouth, but in his ears he is wailing like a banshee under a full moon.

         He would have stayed that way forevermore, except that his rolling right eye snatches a geezer leaning against a nearby counter; clutching his own chest so hard he looks as if he wants to rip out his heart; and drooling pus all over an old fashioned Texaco Star stitched onto his uniform. He cannot say how or why, but he knows the geezer, and he knows something about why he is suffering so.

         And as soon as he knows the geezer; an irascible, old coot straight out of his once and future nightmares; everything comes back into focus. The big, red blur with the recognizable voice is his first love; the married older woman with whom he discovered his manhood in a kitchen closet; and the silver muzzle just now poking into his bloody nose is the blunt instrument with which his first love is urging him back to his feet. This is the darkness before the sunrise; the hours before the bus whisks him off from what is left of his innocence, as if a cyclone picking up Adam and dropping him outside of Eden; the moment that he will be burying in all those countless, but then forgotten, hours spent chugging down a dead highway in the middle of the night and drifting in and out of cheap motels along the way. This is as far from the comfort of his familiar bed; the time and the place where he plugs his ears to block out his wife’s snores and grumbles in his dreams about how bad she smells; as a couple of tours in Vietnam and a few decades talking up the piece of the rock. And this is as near to the hardships in Hell as a babe in diapers first waddling up to a wood burning stove and learning what it means to curl his little baby fingers around a hot iron handle; his blister subsiding over time; even his memories fading into the stuff of strange dreams; but the painful lesson haunting him the rest of his years upon this hostile earth.

         The Old Man moans and mutters something about a black hymen. He is in the arms of one of his own ghosts; perhaps as near and dear as he can get to an actual lover this late in his cantankerous life; and, for that reason, Randall just manages to feel a bit of sympathy for the Old Man; a fleeting connection with a kindred soul; and then a visceral hatred that can be quenched only in the blood of the tortured and mutilated lamb. The Old Man is his brother; not sharing the same surname, to be sure, but wallowing in the same, putrid muck that cannot but slime a man into a hell pit; and so Randall has no other mind but to kill the Texaco Star coot and to leave his corpse bleeding and farting over the sawdust.

         Lana is as jealous of the love-hate between her husband and her beau as she is of the hussy bitch. She reads it in how RC darts his foggy eyes away from the silver muzzle and focuses on the crazed geezer. She hears it in how the Old Man moans, as if his black heart has been broken more so than his body shaken.

         Get your man skin off the floor, Lana cries in the melodramatically shrill voice of a woman about to have a painful butt orgasm and loving every moment of it. I’ve got to clean up ‘fore sunrise, so I don’t have all the time in the world to collect your tab. So come on, get up, get up, and drag your cutie man skin in between your legs and up them stairs. Do it. Do it now, you shit love of my life.

         Randall is convulsing still from the flesh eating pain that has spread into every nerve of his body, but he is no longer so disoriented as to stare blankly at a silver muzzle and to imagine that it is his wife’s nose nudging into his own on the bed that they share with one another at home. He is in Hell, no doubt in his mind; maybe a corner of his nightmares; maybe an actual place set up by those funny town fathers to play an elaborate practical joke on him; but nonetheless, he is in Hell until the tab has been paid and the ledger has been balanced. This is the fundamental reality with which he is being confronted right now; the real time that he has been stealing away and then forgetting altogether as soon as a dark and stormy night at a cheap motel gives way to a clear morning sky on the way to work; the heat flash, and then the jolt of pain, that a cheek feels, when it is on the receiving end of a backhanded slap shielded by nothing other than a dingy yellow lamp light and a whirring drool from a dilapidated air conditioner.

         And so the last reality inside of Randall’s mind is that heat flash and that jolt of pain; the feeling of a thousand years stolen away and imagined to be the flirtatious wink of an eye; what he has been doing over all these decades to the lady in red prodding the shotgun muzzle up his ass; the lady in red captured for a brief moment in the way a psycho bitch whore looks back at him when he has climaxed, or in the way she does not look up at him when he has climaxed; and so what she will be doing to him, when the attic door is bolted behind them; an eye for an eye; measure for measure; hours that had been turned into minutes, now dragging into the endless night as if the untold decades of a ravaged heart.

         He staggers up every step, as if his ankles had been chained together the moment he had been born in order to prepare him for the last stage on the way to a hangman’s noose, or a guillotine, or an exposed breast dripping sweet milk onto his dried tongue, or whatever is on the other side of the door at the top of these steps. He cannot see the door; it is veiled by the shadow that hangs down from the narrow ceiling above the staircase; but he can see a glowing blood red light that is sifting through the space in between the door and the doorframe; a light that seems to be emitting some sort of heavy stretching sound, like all the weight of untold decades stolen now ripping the seams of a bag made out of his own man skin; a light that seems to be lathering his lips in a sickening blend of blood and cum; a light that seems to be an organic life in its own right, feeding off of him as much as imparting into him, transforming him from a middle aged man stealing old nickels of time here or there and into a nineteen-year-old boy basking headstrong and stupid in every deliciously sinful moment, and tearing a dried rape hole into the soft idea that says that the past can be tucked away in the course of all-night drives down dark highways, disposed as no more than an oddity in a dream, and as forgotten as a TV Dinner eaten and tossed into a sink.

         Randall will never leave that attic. Whatever is up there will consume all that is left of his soul, just as the wildfire pain is chewing and swallowing what is left of his gray flesh, and leave him as forgotten as he has left his own years.

         He hesitates by the door handle. He is not yet inside that attic, but he is enveloped already in the glowing blood red light and feeling his soul drain away from his flesh. He is becoming one of the many ghosts that sift in and out of all the fumes, farts, and greasy stains that are the lifeblood of the Texaco Gas and Grill; one of the sick dreams with which the Old Man indulges in the wane of his years; one of the sick fantasies with which his first love orgasms in her bathtub.

         Go on, Lana screams, while prodding the silver muzzle into his ass as if it is a cold and rigid dildo. Just pretend you’re back at the Ho-Jo’s, taking my old woman’s hand into yours, and slipping into the closet ‘fore anyone else sees us.

         He grabs the door handle; his hand so shriveled in cold sweat that he has not the traction with which to grip the splintery wood strong and sturdy enough to turn the knob; and then sees that he is not basking in glowing blood red light after all. There is a dim candlelight sifting through the doorway; but otherwise, he is entombed within the darkness of a narrow staircase ascending to an attic.

         He struggles to breathe. He is being suffocated by that total blackness.

         And that terrifies him even more than a glowing blood red light gnawing away at his soul. He can wrap his mind around the idea of draining into the life of a ghost; but that total blackness is oblivion; maybe nothing at all, or maybe an infinitude of possibilities as to what next may snare him; an existential dead end that is impervious to the childlike reach of his conscious mind not only now but, he suspects, forevermore, if he actually turns the knob and shuffles inside.

         And so he does the only thing he can do. He drops his sweaty hand to his side and leans his forehead against the door, a gesture not so much of defiance as of resignation, bracing himself for the next dildo thrust from out of the dark.

         Open the goddamned door, Lana screams hysterically, as she again prods him with the shotgun muzzle. The Old Man is not knocked out; just takin’ a full eight count; and he ain’t gonna be as darlin’ as I am when it comes to your tab.

         He senses her fear; her unrivaled passion to get into the attic and to bolt the door before he can stomp up the staircase and do whatever he wants to do; her tense struggle between fear and control, sex and violence, that keeps her a sick caricature of femme fatale passion, or a busty icon of little girl innocence, but never quite allows her to be a total human being. He senses just how much she represents, not only for himself but he suspects for all of the other knuckle dragging hard-ons in her small universe, and therefore what she just cannot be.

         Her fear is tangible; so visceral as to be almost sensual in its own right; a reality that he experiences and files away in his conscious mind; and therefore, it revives him; not all of him; not even most of him; but that unthinking part of his soul that just wants to get away. He feels much the same at this moment as when he had made his suicidal leap towards the Old Man and that is because, in the end, suicide is nothing more than the impulse to get away; to be anywhere, or even nowhere, if only not here; to steal away the untold hours between now and eternity and never to account for them, even before the regal face of God.

         He kicks his right leg backwards like an angry horse, landing his wet heel on her waist, and forcing out of her a surprised cough. He has no idea if she has her finger still on the trigger; if the very next moment he will be a gooey blood splat; and, frankly, he does not care just so long as he gets far away from here.

         Apparently, Lana does not have the killer instinct of her husband, as she had wrapped all of her fingers around the barrel in order to be able to use it as a dildo. She drops the shotgun behind her and falls halfway down the staircase, before finally managing to grab a hold of something in the blackness and to pull herself up to her knees. She is foamy in the mouth, like she has swallowed a bit too much, and now regrets that she ever learned how to please a man this way.

         The shotgun tumbles to the sawdust floor; literally landing within inches of the Old Man who is still leaning against the greasy counter; and miraculously never firing a bullet. It is gleaming silver and wood; a malicious intelligence, no doubt, just biding its time before it can be reacquainted with its cantankerous, perverse master and given an opportunity to inflict real damage on living flesh; and it dares Randall to rush down the steps and to make his attempt to escape.

         Randall takes the dare. He has nothing else to lose, and he desires to be as far as possible from whatever is behind that attic door. He has no more idea now of truly escaping with his life as he did when he horse kicked his first love.

         I ain’t lettin’ you go ‘till you pay your tab, Lana screeches, as she opens her arms to obstruct him from running down the staircase on either side of her.

         But Randall has never been the talking kind. He prefers the drive by kiss, especially with whatever is behind that attic door seeming to reach through the narrow space in between the door and the doorway and to pull back at his skin.

         And so he kisses Lana with his left knee and knocks her bloody face down the rest of the staircase. She is sprawled on the sawdust; her arms reaching out in the manner of Christ on His Crucifix; her tongue sliding out from in between her clownishly red lips to expunge a slobbery cry of dereliction, not so much as a response to the pain spasms rippling out from her crushed nose and mouth, as a realization that never again will she have a beautiful face above her balloons.

         He shuffles passed her; observes the Old Man stoop for the shotgun; and, unleashing his animal instinct, runs face down for the front door and the crazed storm beyond it. He does not have enough of a rational mind in him to be at all capable of turning a doorknob, so if the door is not opened by a gust of wind as soon as he gets there, then he will be ramming through the glass like a big bull.

         Indeed, the wind pushes the door open, but only enough for him to crash his forehead against the side panel and to fall backward onto the cash register; an anguished cry coughing out from his gut at that moment; but, in fact, a very lucky crash, since he is falling back to the side as the Old Man pumps the barrel and fires a bullet through the front door glass and into the side of the Delta 88.

         The propulsion pushes Randall back. He twirls over the cash register and lands face down on the sawdust behind the counter. He skips in and out of bare consciousness; his mind flashing from being in his bed beside his candy stained, fat fuck of a wife to falling into the absolute blackness of the void; the two not really all that different from one another; but he has enough instinct remaining in him to cover the back of his head and neck with his hands, as the firework of hot and shattered glass sprinkles death all over his body. He cannot sense time, and so he imagines that the firework is going to fall over his body forevermore.

         The mad geezer is going to blow us all to hell, Randall thinks, just as his mind returns to the scene here, and he vomits a spasm of gas shards and blood.

         Randall has reason to be afraid, though he does not know just how close that bullet flew passed one of the two gas pumps. If only there had been a gust at that moment, or a minute change in the muzzle angle, then the whole of the Texaco Gas and Grill this second would be consumed in hell fire and brimstone.

         He hears the shotgun pump. Normally, it is the loud click that inspires so much fear in a man that instinctually he will run away from it; but Randall just has enough sense to know that if he runs away, the next blast indeed will strike the gas pump and initiate their version of the Apocalypse. He forces his mind to override his instinct and jumps out from behind the counter and toward the Old Man; his fingers reaching out for the barrel like rapacious claws; his heat trying to beat out from inside his chest; his face a strange brew of horror and resolve.

         He pushes up the barrel as the next shot fires; the recoil at that angle of attack knocking the Old Man onto his butt; and the blast so loud and vibrational that Randall feels as if he has been shoved out from his own hurt body and into a nightmare of spinning shadows. His right ear feels as if it is hundreds of yards beneath the surface of the ocean, and his equilibrium has been lost altogether. 

         Randall staggers through the hole in the front door. He sees the Delta 88 in front of him; the driver’s side door caved inward from the initial bullet; but, in his disorientation, he cannot fathom why he would want to go to his car over someplace else. And if he had the time to think upon it, he would determine it is not really his car anyway, since he is pretty certain he did not own any set of wheels the night before he left for Vietnam. And, really, isn’t that when he has been all of his life: the night before the Navy bus drives him away from his final trace of innocence; the night before she is lost to him; always the night before?

         But all of that is chewing away at his subconscious mind. He is just a fool staggering out from beneath the overhang on what looks to him like three pairs of legs. He smells smoke rising up from his own chest the moment he steps into the rain and vaguely senses that that is bristling gunpowder steaming off of him and being carried away by howling gusts. He had never felt any pain from all of that gunpowder burning into his chest, because at this point he is nothing more than pain incarnate; a hungry beast eating out his own flesh; an instinct for the survival of a sick life that he can no longer understand and, perhaps, never did; and gunpowder is nothing in comparison to the hellfire he carries inside of him.

         He is in front of the outhouse off to the side, when the next blast from a shotgun disintegrates the Whites Only sign above his upturned eyes and, maybe for good measure, knocks the rest of the outhouse into a cauldron of overgrown weeds. He sheds a soft tear for all those whites who will never again be able to take a shit at this very spot; this tiny patch of earth never again to be soiled by a white man’s feces; the streams out yonder never to be augmented by a white man’s pee; and he senses that a grand racial privilege has been lost to eternity.

         But this is no time to be sentimental. He hears the shotgun pump behind him. He bolts for the highway and never looks back, even as the last bullet flies passed his right ear and explodes a tree stump that has been there since Moses.

         He cannot tell if he is running forward or backward. Perhaps he is caught in a loop that just keeps him stuck in the night before; always the night before; so that he can expect soon enough to return to the Texaco Gas and Grill, where the Old Man no doubt will be tolling for him with a surefire shotgun by his side.

         It’s time for you to pay your tab, the Old Man will say to him with a devil smile cracking the lines on his face. It’s time for you to pay me in another way.

         And he may get away from him that time; the shotgun bullets close, but no cigar; but one of the times he circles back to him he will not be so lucky. He will be the bloody pulp left behind from a shotgun bullet, and whichever pieces of his old self found here or there will be dragged into the A frame bit by bit so that, even before his parts can cool off, he can be made to pay in another way.

         So no matter how much time I steal away, I gotta pay the piper ‘fore the sunrise, Randall mutters to himself in the language and the accent of his youth.

         There is a bus by the side of the road; a line of tired long hairs, standing at a semblance of attention, and half listening to a uniformed crew cut reading off of a clipboard; and another uniformed crew cut gesturing for Randall to fall in. It is only at that moment that Randall realizes that the storm has ended and that the first hint of daybreak can be traced in soft streaks of dark velvet light.

         He does what he has been gestured to do. He is too tired to continue his stagger down the highway and suspects that it would be pointless anyway. He is just another sick long hair on a list ready to be shipped out to the killing fields.

         Except that he is not a long hair. He sees his reflection; no more than his strange shadow in a side passenger window, but still able to be distinguished at least in his own imagination from a wet tree branch and a heavy cloud that are also reflected off of that surface; and he is as much a middle aged drone with a chunky monkey wife as he has been for as long as he can recall. Perhaps he had never really been a nineteen year old, even when he had been swaggering John Wayne style into a kitchen closet with his married older woman. Perhaps, even then, he had been a salesman with a penchant for psycho bitch whores. And, if so, then it does matter how many hours he has stolen on the road, because this is where it all ends, just around the bend at a makeshift bus stop, standing at a semblance of attention in a line of kiddies who will be dead before even having a chance at a Christmas fuck, while on leave in Saigon, and waiting for his turn.

         Son, are you telling me you don’t have any I.D? The crew cut teases him.

         His wallet is gone. But it does not matter. They’ll recreate him anyway.

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Published by Michael Sean Erickson

I write, act, and produce films in Los Angeles. Everything else is conjecture.

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