How I Came to See and What I Saw; A Manifesto by Jackie Balladarsch II
Sometimes I’ll just pick out one guy and watch him move around, living his life. Like this skinheaded young Mexican, for example. He’s trying to work his way in with a bunch of vatos who like to hang around the yard looking relaxed and dangerous, making deals and plans, like it matters. There’s really no reason to do anything in here, but confine a bunch of people to one place and lives will entangle. This guy keeps walking past them smoking cigarettes, close but not too close, scowling but without much sense of purpose. They pretend not to see him.
When I found out I was coming here I thought I’d probably have to join up with one group or another just to stay alive, but people pretty much leave me alone. The top dogs would rather mess with the ones who are scared, which is most of them. They’re more predictable, more fun. They go around with their brains controlling them. Me, I’ve pretty much got mine tamed. Do enough thinking and eventually you’ll realize that once you can control your brain there’s practically no limit to what you can do. And that’s a powerful feeling, which is the only true good feeling there is, which is a plain fact.
About a year ago my ex-girlfriend, Cheryl, took out a restraining order on me. She said she was scared and that was the truth—she was scared of what I had to give her. Her lawyer told the judge I “posed a threat,” but I didn’t pose a damned thing. I was a different man back then. Meek as a lamb. Didn’t hardly cuss, didn’t do nothing but dip snuff, which in my opinion is only a nasty habit if you spit. I didn’t even drink, except gallons of Dr. Pepper, cold or hot, a dozen or so a day. When married up with tobacco juice and swallowed, it’s just plain wonderful.
I met Cheryl at church. I can see me now and it makes me laugh—all clean shaven and combed, upright and inside out. As far as I could tell she was infested with innocence, and I guess I wanted some of it. I had my eye on her for weeks, but was too scared to say anything. Finally, at a potluck supper, I complimented her green bean and macaroni casserole—which turned out to be the only thing she could cook. When she looked into my eyes an electric charge passed between us. I sweated and obsessed over her and after a few months she moved out of her parents’ place and into mine. There’s nothing more boring than a love story in my opinion.
The problem was she wouldn’t let me fuck her. Wouldn’t let herself fuck me. I tried so hard to come across as sensitive I half-believed it myself when I said I just wanted to show her how much I loved her, like God intended. She said God intended we get married first. I said well why don’t we just get married then, but she said that was awful, she wouldn’t marry me if the only reason was to have sex. Of course I said that wasn’t the only reason, I loved her and wanted to be with her forever, but she said if that was true I would’ve asked her before the issue came up. I said, “Well, what in the hell am I supposed to say to that?” and she said, “Nothing. You can’t say nothing.”
I remember her in that moment, sitting beside me on the porch swing while the chains groaned and the crickets screamed, her face hard like a mask in the blue security light as she stared off toward the woods. In Africa, it’s the female lions that do most of the killing. I was seeing her for the first time. I can see her now, sitting right here on the bunk in front of me. I could have a conversation with her if there was anything to say.
That night in bed, I touched her big ass and she squirmed away. She said she didn’t want me to be mad at her, she was just upset. I still can’t figure out what the fuck that meant. The next evening after work, I came up behind her in the kitchen and laid a gentle hand upon her shoulder. But she just stood there spreading peanut butter. I could see her face embedded in the black of the window in front of her, staring down at her sandwich like she was gutting a fish. And here for the past month she’d been living in my house, soaking up my air conditioning and rooting like a raccoon through the refrigerator. I bit my lip, walked into the living room and turned on the tv.
High Plains Drifter was playing. That’s the one where Eastwood rides into a town full of spineless dipshits all scared to death of this little band of outlaws about to get out of jail and return with mayhem. And they give him the run of the town, complete authority over everything in exchange for his protection. It’s maybe the greatest movie ever made, and there’s a scene in the beginning, just after he guns down three bad men in a barber shop, where he’s walking across the street and some nice-looking, stuck-up female bumps into him and says something bitchy, and Clint drags her by her hair over to a barn and forces himself on her in a pile of hay. But the catch is she likes it, wants it, needs it, and he sees it right off. This scene hit me like a thunderbolt. I thought it was a sign and, looking back, I was right.
Only unlike in the movie she started crying, before I was even close to finished. I rolled off her and started to feel sick. Of course, she knew exactly what she was doing, but I blubbered away about how sorry I was, tried to explain. She hurried out the door for her parents, and I just let her go. She didn’t even take her purse. Next thing I knew she had a lawyer, which, like I said, there wasn’t any need for.
A couple of months ago I read through a book, Man Before Recorded Time, by some scientist doctor who says that for the greatest part of human history we were nomadic hunters—moving around, setting up camps, the men out hunting and the women staying back with the kids to cook and craft. I started thinking about that and I was like a cymbal struck. Imagine how free and simple that life would be. Find the beast, kill the beast, let the women cook it, eat it, fuck the women, go to sleep. Never a dull moment, never a doubt, never a question. I wrote that author a letter explaining how all the world’s problems are caused by the fact we no longer live that way. He hasn’t written back yet, probably won’t. Not that I care—it’s just there’s not much else to do in here.
When a man and a woman get together the natural course is to copulate. There’s no other reason for it. Though my case may be an exception, actually, because if it wasn’t for Cheryl I might not’ve got the job with the fuel company. One evening she’d mentioned that her cousin Pauline’s boyfriend Kenny—a first-class idiot—had said they were looking for another driver, paying $18 an hour. I already had my cdl from driving a skidder for Wizenhunt Timber, so I went and interviewed and got the job. God knows what would’ve happened if I hadn’t.
The night she left I made a sign with green spray paint on a big piece of cardboard—cheryl please forgive me!!! I took it to the end of my dirt road, drove stakes into the ditch and affixed it with duct tape facing the highway, where I knew she’d see it going into town. The next day when I came home from work it was raining and the sign had collapsed on itself and the words were swollen and blurred to nothing.
She had me so screwed up I couldn’t look at tv, couldn’t hardly swallow my own spit. I felt like a rope twisted from both ends into a bulging mass of knots. At work, when we’d fill the trucks in the morning or park them in the afternoon, Kenny would update me on what she was up to—living with her parents, teaching Sunday school, waiting for a bingo with only one card because she believes in fate. And I couldn’t get within a thousand yards of her, legally.
I started zoning out a lot. When you fill the tanks, when you affix the big magnet and lift the iron lid from the concrete, those fumes have been down there, waiting to escape. You have a pair of tubes that attach to the opening—one channels the displaced fumes up into the trailer, while the other delivers the fuel into the big tank underground. But not all the fumes make it back into the trailer. Some of them drift up and become the air and you breathe them into your brain. It wasn’t long before I started to look forward to hovering over the tanks as they filled, to greeting the open end of the big hose when I carried it to and from the tray on the side of the trailer. It wasn’t long before I knew the feeling well—elastic, slippery, drifting. It calmed me down, and made it easier to think as I made my rounds. It was during those long days of driving and thinking that everything started coming together, that I started to see the ways of my brain, which had always been so tricky for their being unknown.
I never that I remember made any big decision to start breathing the gas—like most things, it just sort of happened before I knew it. But I do recall the first time I decided to empty my lungs and fill myself up with it. There’s a world of difference between accidentally and on purpose, and it has everything to do with being in control.
This is what I was onto that boiling hot August afternoon, at an e-z mart in Ennis, Texas, when the premium tank was staring at me through its open lid, inviting me over. There was only one thing to do. I knelt and grabbed both sides of the dark hole—acting like I had some reason for looking inside—and bent my face to the vapor and invited it into me. I seeked it out. I was seeking truth.
Open a paper, turn on the news, and you’ll hear about things too awful to be explained. But that doesn’t stop the explanations. He had an addiction, a disorder, a tumor. Her new husband ran off with her daughter. The war gave him a blood thirst. Whatever they can come up with. Murder runs in the family. But whenever possible, they’ll lay the blame at the parents’ feet.
Momma used to sing hymns while she brushed my curly hair straight in the mornings, and when I flinched or complained she’d flip the brush over and whack my head, then go right on singing. She’s one of these people who has tried so hard to keep the Devil buried inside her that he’s filled her up, where his eyeballs are her eyeballs, and he shows his hand in all her actions, no matter how kind. But she fed and clothed me, so I’ve got no complaints.
When I was about eight, I sat on a stool in the kitchen, watching her fry deer steaks. Daddy came in happy as a lark and tried to get her dancing, winked at me and planted a kiss—but she just stiffened to furious stone. I went to my room, lay on the carpet beside my door and listened to her bitch at him. He’d stayed out all night, and she was as close to yelling as I ever heard. “I know you don’t care about me,” she said, playing the victim. “And not even for yourself, you won’t straighten out. But what about your son? Or are you just too drunk all the time to care?”
Daddy said, “Good lord, I wish I was drunk right now,” and I heard the screen door shut and his truck start so he could go and do so.
He didn’t like to argue, and he didn’t weigh me down with a lot of rules. The one useful thing a parent can do for their kid is to teach them, to show them the true nature of the world, and in the time he had I think Daddy did a fine job of it.
He sold firewood and riding lawnmowers he fixed up. The wood he cut out of the Sulphur River bottoms, from his friend Lester’s place. Him and Lester and a couple other men had a camp set up way out in those dark woods, and that was where Daddy spent a lot of his time. They had a still, just like the for-real old-timers, and they drank all that dripped. They played cards and went out on the river at night and telephoned, which is a term you might or might not be familiar with but which means taking an old crank-box telephone and affixing an electric line to its innards, dropping the other end of the line into the water—wires splayed out and weighted with a few links of chain, a railroad iron bound to the box should the game warden show—then grinding away and watching what floats up. And they’d eat whatever happened to the surface. Amazing how full of life that old foamy brown water is when you see everything floating on top. Mostly catfish and carp and gar, but you’d also get, bearing fangs, eel and cottonmouth and gator, even sturgeon a time or two. They had a heavy steel grate on four spider legs they built fires beneath and they fried the fish whole in a big blackened pot full of grease. Listened to the Allman Brothers and both Hank Williamses and David Alan Coe and the like. And it was a lucky hog or deer that wandered onto Lester’s place and didn’t end up slain. It was quite a setup they had, and I know I was fortunate just to be invited once.
I was thirteen. Daddy stuck his head into my room, said, “Come on. You’re going with me.” I trembled as I crammed my feet into a pair of rubber boots I’d outgrown. At camp, sitting around a fire, Daddy handed me a jelly jar half full of shine. “Sip that slow or it won’t be friendly,” he said, and the other men chuckled.
The river was flooded up into the woods and we motored in amongst some big pecan trees—no major change between land and water, like there is when you’re sober. Daddy lowered the line and grinned at me as he lifted the box onto his lap. With the bell disabled, it made a sound like flapping wings. After he cranked it for a minute, Lester brought the beam onto the water and there was a good-sized Appaloosa catfish showing his fat belly glossed over like a giant’s blank eyeball, a few skinny gar with their permanent sneer, and the light finally stopped on something which took me a good long moment to admit to myself was a snake. A moccasin, maybe six feet long and big around as a two-liter Coke, lying fat and black on top of the water, straight like a hand-rolled cigarette and stinking like death, like the Devil’s asshole, as you well know if you’ve ever been up close to one of those things. Daddy reached with the butt of his paddle and hefted it from the water. The stench filled my nostrils and dove into my stomach, and I turned and puked into the water, tasting the shine again. They all had a good long laugh.
It was a couple of weeks later he got shot in the face and died. Johnny Long was the one that pulled the trigger. Lester and Georgie were both there, and said it was an accident. It was a twenty gauge loaded with number four shot, so it obviously wasn’t an open casket. Momma hugged Johnny and cried on him for some time. They put Daddy in a box and put the box in the ground. Momma had a verse carved into the headstone—fear the lord and depart from evil. proverbs 3:7.
I never really got what that meant till one day I stewed on it while driving the truck. It sure as hell wasn’t Daddy’s motto. Now I see it means exactly what it says. It’s the marching orders of Momma and people like her, and it was her having the last word.
Momma’s still alive. She was always real into her church, and after Daddy died it only got worse. You might think it would be the opposite, but it’s like I said about explanations. I guess she decided Johnny shooting Daddy in the face was God’s plan.
When I finally invited the gas into me, it filled me up. It just filled me the fuck up. When you’ve got the fumes inside you, they’re not just inside your lungs and your head, they’re everywhere. Like your innards are bathed in it, turbocharged. It’s like you’re sleepwalking, except you’re awake and everyone else is asleep, and if you don’t understand that then go out and pop your tank and find out for yourself.
After I pulled my head out of the hole and got to my feet, I was floating, gliding across the pavement to the truck. I turned onto the road and started thinking, barely aware of shifting and steering but doing a fine job of it, drifting along at the head of several tons of steel and several thousand gallons of gasoline. With no fear of what I would find but only an open curiosity, I thought about Cheryl. And as I began to see the Jezebel behind the sweet smile, a calm washed over me, and I felt the power of calm. I saw finally the war for control our relationship had been—that it was that and nothing more or less.
I gave the inside of the tank a thorough inspection at my next two stops, and at the end of that day I found myself parked on the side of fm 1397, just sitting and thinking, and I could see my thoughts. The ground opened up in the field beside me and a pack of glowing red coyotes rushed out and disappeared into the woods. That night in the shower, with my palms on the wall in front of me, I could feel my face washing off in glops and hear it splattering onto the floor at my feet, running between my toes and down the drain. I reached up to touch my bare eye socket and was met with flesh. Lying in bed, I welcomed the dreams I’d always feared.
The next morning at the distribution center, I stood on the platform and finished my breakfast Dr. Pepper. I unclasped the hose from the top of the tanker and used the trickle to refill the can. Turning onto the highway, I put the can to my nose and drew in the fumes. An old man driving a big shiny rv cursed me as he veered into the ditch, and it suddenly hit me what I was.
“I’m a fucking missile,” I said.
And all at once I knew what those Muslims felt when they took over the cockpit, knew why they did it better than they did. I’d never realized before how powerful, how lethal I was driving that old rig. Up till then I’d just tooled around—scared, truth be told, of all that size and power—making my deliveries, counting the minutes till I got off so I could go home, lay in front of the tv and count the minutes till I went to sleep. Counting the minutes till I died.
But now, everywhere I drove, I was seeing, projected on a screen in my mind, scenarios of turning the wrist a few inches in either direction, and everything concluding in billowing fire. I saw people frozen in panic, then euphoric in flames. I saw bodies scorched to skeletons and all the truth in a skull. I saw perfect grades up overpass sides, where I might weave into the grass and have my heart drop into my crotch as all that steel and fuel and fumes lurched skyward like a diseased robot, hung crooked and weightless for a perfect moment, then plunged like a palm on a mosquito, like the hand of God, like hellfire upon whatever lay beneath.
Everywhere I saw possibilities. I kept the can in the cup holder and took the fumes whenever I wanted. Knowing I’d only get one shot, I looked for bigger, more notable targets. I thought about an elementary school less than a mile from the gate at the distributor, but dismissed the idea. Though isn’t it funny how there’s this whole other attitude toward killing kids, just because they haven’t grown up to be the assholes we all know they’re going to be anyway. Which a lot of them already are. There’s a fertilizer plant toward Shreveport that would’ve made a hydrogen bomb for all I knew—I never researched it, didn’t read as much back then. There’s a National Guard Armory off Highway 11 where soldiers train on Saturdays, and it has a beautiful looping gravel drive I could’ve hit at over a hundred—which you might doubt that old rig could do, but I’d proven more than once that it could—where they’d only have time to glance up in the middle of a jumping jack before I powdered them.
But again, I wasn’t going to blow up a bunch of kids. They see the possibilities in the world—unlike almost all adults—and it would be a shame to destroy that. It’s from thousands of compromises that those possibilities get replaced by probabilities, and then finally there’s only the certainty of death. But once you put away the dream and accept reality, you can put whipped cream on a tombstone and call it a sundae. If you’re one of the lucky ones, like me, you figure out it doesn’t matter what you do. It doesn’t fucking matter. Say that to yourself as many times as it takes to sink in and you’ll start to see the world for the first time, the one you’ve been afraid of since you were a kid. All those dark things you knew for a clear instant but instantly forgot, well, I’ve got news for you—forgotten is a place in your brain, and those slimy critters are in there and we’re fixing to take them out and look at them under the light. And they’ll open their old unused eyes to look at you, just because they know it’ll make you listen when they say you’re only free when you’re doing something to prove it. Like the tanker, like any of us out on the road—just a twitch of the wrist and bodies, lives, history are changed forever. But we keep it straight, don’t we? Not even considering our options. Our limitless options.
When you’re a kid, horror movies can really open up the hell in you. Then you get a little older and you figure out they’re not real, and you say that to yourself, “They’re not real.” But live long enough and you’ll realize, they might not be real but they are true. When I was in the first grade, I saw a piece of some slasher movie on tv. I only remember this woman looking down at the tip of a knife sticking out her belly, blood spilling from her mouth. After that, I had a hard time getting to sleep. I told Daddy about it one day as I stacked the logs he split—struggling to keep the pile straight, not stopping for splinters. I guess he looked equal to any psycho, towering over me dripping sweat, slamming down the maul time and again, busting those blocks of oak. Daddy laughed and said, “Hell, it’s just a movie.”
“But why did they make it?”
“They made it to scare people. Why do you think they made it?”
“But why do people want to be scared?”
“Shit, I don’t know, son. They just like it. It’s fun.”
Later on that day—Momma must’ve been in town, I guess—when I finally finished the stack, I went inside and drank a glass of Kool-Aid. After rinsing out my glass, I walked into the living room. The shades were drawn and the lights were off and there were three monsters in men’s clothes sitting in the back of the room, all perfectly still and staring at me with black eyes. My knees went wobbly, and I lay down shaking, twisted into myself. I heard Daddy laugh and his friends laugh as he took off his Halloween mask, walked up and lifted me to his mouth, biting at my belly saying, “You crazy thing! You crazy little thing!”
Daddy once said—probably the only time he ever taught me by telling instead of showing—“Don’t work any more than you have to. Life’s too short. But if you have to work, don’t work hard, work smart.” He said, “Any asshole can work hard.”
I think about that sometimes when I see these guys in here lifting weights. Some of them constantly, laboring away, trading energy for muscle. I suppose they’re trying to make their bodies into weapons. As if flesh could compete with steel. It’s just instinct, I guess.
It always made me shake my head when I’d see the other drivers after work, soaping up their hands. They wore gloves, but the gas would still get on them, and they saw that as a bad thing. What they didn’t realize was that germs couldn’t touch me. Hell, mosquitoes quit biting me. They’d always liked the flavor of my blood—and that was an extremely wet summer as well as hot, and they were a fog in the air—but that August they hardly landed on me. I remember once a big one lighted on my arm. I just watched it stick me and drink, and when it finished it shook its head and flew straight up into the ceiling fan.
I kept the windows up on the truck, at first just to keep in the fumes, but I got to know the heat and to like it. The hotter it became the more comfortable I was. I’d bead up and run with sweat while the sunlight baked my arms. I loved when I could barely see the road through all the blinding redness of the sun setting before me.
You know how the gas gets to the distribution center? Through pipes under the ground, from the coast to everywhere. The veins of the country. I came to feel not only the power, but a sense of importance for being a part of it all. I knew that practically anything I hit would go backwards, and if it was stout enough to put up a fight it would get blown the fuck up. I never listened to the radio because there’s nothing better than the rumble of that diesel and the roar of all that parted wind. I hit the cb only once, said, “Hey boys, I got a question.”
Some old dude said, “Who we got here? Come back.”
Without thinking about it, I said, “This is Crawfish, over.”
“What you got, Crawfish?”
“Y’all be totally honest now. Your momma’s not listening. You ever think about turning the wheel? Over to the other side, just for the hell of it?”
For a long time, there’s silence. Finally I said, “It’s alright. I know the answer.” Because even if they hadn’t before, I knew they were at that moment.
Of course, more and more my thoughts turned to Cheryl, living with her parents in their little square brick house at the end of a long straight gravel drive, the plastic deer grazing in the yard, the wishing well to nowhere, the gnomes, a wooden cross on a Christmas tree stand, and Cheryl inside feeling safe and frustrated, not expecting but longing for the final, ultimate orgasm I would bring with the screaming engine. I guess on some level I knew that, of all the scenarios, that one made the most sense. I thought about taking them all out during a sermon or a hymn at the Missionary Baptist Church—show them real power for once, blow the roof skyward on a high note like they’d been trying to do for years—but I didn’t drive on Sundays.
It was Labor Day—the roads mixed with people hauling boats, jet skis, four-wheelers. Lines at the gas stations. The sun was nude, falling straight down and not stopping when it hit something but going a certain distance inside it, passing through the glass but not going back out, stuffing the cab with itself, with heat. I was waiting at a red light beside the dollar store when I saw Cheryl and her mom walk out carrying their bags, chattering all the way to her mom’s blue minivan, Cheryl’s ass jiggling. I put the can to my nose. Looking down on them from high up behind the wheel, I promised them that I would end their lives. From that moment on it was a done deal as far as I was concerned. I watched two dead people drive away.
I knew I could’ve followed and picked my spot to run clear over them—just gobble them up under those big solid tires, popping their own like kids’ balloons, mixing bones and steel, blood and fuel—and in that case I might get away with it, say it was an accident. But I was bound for glory in flames. I knew that no man can accomplish greatness if he’s afraid of dying, and if I ran them over in their little van it might not even rupture the trailer. The idea of perishing simultaneously with Cheryl, of having our tiny particles spin together in a boiling burst and float into the nothing, was just too much to resist.
Besides, when people are driving there’s a small fear in the back of their mind that something could happen. I wanted to pulverize them while they were watching Wheel of Fortune. “Pat, I think I’ll solve the puzzle.” Or one of those daytime talk shows. Give them an answer at last to all those questions, all those problems people have.
I just saw a fight where a guy got stabbed and died. I’ve been waiting for something like that to happen. The knife was made of melted black plastic spoons filed to an edge. They say Dillinger escaped from prison by carving a pistol from a bar of soap and painting it black with shoe polish. That would make a good advertisement for whatever soap brand it was. “Ivory—it can get you out of a jam.” The stabber had a dirty white beard and was bald on top. He looked like a vicious troll, and his expression hardly changed the whole time, even when he left the knife in the dude’s ear and hurried away. The guy that took it was a lot bigger. He had a tattoo on the back of his big white skull that said hard head, but that knife seemed to go in pretty easy. There was a pool of blood around his head and several narrow streams running away from it through channels clawed into the concrete, curling away in all directions, like art being born. It truly would’ve made a beautiful picture—those straight up-and-down eyebrows and shocked dead eyes, clenched crooked jaw, his cartoon reflection on his own blood. He looked like he was trying not to be dead.
The fight lasted longer than most—maybe fifteen seconds. While it was happening, those of us in the audience watched silently, savoring every moment, and when the tip found the big guy’s brain, nobody looked away. Being in here makes me realize I’m nothing special. There’s always some bad man being born unto himself, somewhere under the red glow of the sun, the cold gray of the moon. And they’re bringing in more every day, and pretty much every time they do they’ve got to turn right around and let one out.
A lot of these guys will admit they’re better suited for this place than the outside, but that doesn’t stop them from wanting out. I’m the first to say freedom is a mental state, but the fact is options aren’t, and in this place your options are seriously limited. You can lay your hands on any illegal drug quick as a hamburger at McDonald’s, but try to get a few ounces of plain old gasoline. You wouldn’t believe it.
Of course some make their own pleasure, with fermented fruit or with each other. I gave that a shot once, sort of, and it just didn’t work out. Not that I hold the vagina sacred, I just prefer it is all. It’s combat with the enemy and that can be fun. When I was driving the tanker, I’d pull into a truck stop once or twice a week and pick up a lot lizard. In the long run it’s a lot cheaper and a whole lot easier than the straight and narrow, and the exact same thing.
I decided to take out Cheryl and her parents on September 11. No special reason, just to give people something to think about. When the morning arrived, I ate a bowl of oatmeal and honey with my usual Dr. Pepper, because oatmeal will stay with you all day. I finished my second can at the fill tank and refilled it as usual with premium octane. I decided to wait till the end of the day to do it, not because I wanted to finish my deliveries, but because by then the tank is filled more with vapor than with liquid fuel and that vapor is a hell of a lot more explosive, plus it’s a lot lighter which means more speed, plus I knew that was when they usually watched tv. After I made my last deposit, I headed out on fm 1604 toward their place—to go break that restraining order—but I was feeling a little hungry and decided to have a final meal.
I took a big whiff and pulled into a sandwich place. When I gave the girl my order, she looked away—as people had since I’d come to know the gas, as people will when they recognize one who has awakened—then went to fumbling around and put three pieces of cheese on one end of my cold cuts and only one on the other, twice as much mayo on the half with less cheese, and I looked up at the young girl with her braces, which turned to silver fangs when I focused on them, and said, “It’s okay. If I had your job, I’d probably do the same thing.” I spat on the floor and walked out into the heat.
Across the road, Pearl’s Diner was sinking into the woods, its front windows spidered from gravel flung by tires. Just for fun, I ran between two southbound pickups, making the back one jab its brakes and honk. Inside the diner, a tall piece of strawberry pie beckoned from a glass case. As I forked apart and ate the fat berries embedded in red gelatin, it seemed possible that I was consuming chunks of liver or kidneys, chilled for transplant.
Working on my third slice, I look over at this man sitting at the counter next to me. I study his face for some time, trying to figure out who he is, or if I know him. The old sad-sack bastard is hunkered over his bacon sandwich, sipping coffee. I can tell he’s on the tail end of a long drunk, which is why he doesn’t feel me staring. Big curly white lamb chops and his eyes with shiny wads of skin under them, like he’s made of wax and got too close to a fire. Finally he turns to me, and looking him straight in the face I know who he is, see the man I once knew beneath what time has done to him.
“Lester,” I say.
He squints at me, smiles yellow teeth and, using just his fat tongue, says, “Little Jackie,” and laughs like a punctured tire.
I never liked that name, even when I was Little Jackie, and that plus how stupid he looks makes me want to break my plate over his face, but I just say, “You look like something a wildcat puked up, Lester.”
He stops smiling. “You look like your daddy,” he says, and tears a couple of sugar packets into his coffee.
“Is that a fact?”
He nods and sips. “So what’s the news? How’s the world treatin’ you?”
“Well, actually Lester, to be completely honest, I’m doing great. Better than I ever have in my whole life.”
“I’m fucking serious,” I say, but he’s watching the waitress bend over behind the counter. Finally he says, “That’s good, son. That’s good. So, ah, what’re you doing with yourself these days?”
“Mostly just living. Breathing. Been thinking a lot lately.”
“Oh, just everything.”
“Well, that ought to keep you busy.”
Lester picks up his sandwich and looks at it for a few seconds, then drops it onto his plate, defeated. I get concerned about wasting these precious final minutes. “You and Daddy had some high times, didn’t you, Lester?”
His chin wrinkles and he shakes his head. “Jackie was a good dude, but he was a wild son of a bitch, too.”
This makes me smile. Lester starts laughing to himself. He gets louder, till everybody in the place can hear him. “One time,” he says. “This one time out at camp, Jackie laid in bed, buck naked in the dark and waited on Johnny to come in. Johnny took all his clothes off and climbed into bed with him—” Lester is assaulted by the laughter, struggles to breathe, and his red face with eyes mashed together like slit plums, and his old scabby yellow hand squeezing my shoulder, makes me wish he’d get struck by a heart attack and fold to the floor. “Johnny jumped out, started cussing, calling your daddy every cuss word there is. Johnny went and got his old forty-five auto. Me and Georgie had to talk sense to him. Finally he put it away, said, ‘I wasn’t gonna kill him. I was just gonna blow his dick off!’”
I slide his hand off my shoulder. “Why did Johnny take off his clothes?”
I repeat myself slowly.
“Oh . . . well, we had this old gal from over in Oklahoma we’d have come out now and then. Jackie had her put up in the closet.” He starts to laugh again, but takes a shot of coffee instead. I can tell he’s preparing to get emotional with me. “It’s good to see you, son,” he says. “Your daddy was . . . an individual. I don’t know that there ever was a day in his whole life he didn’t have some kind of fun. And I still miss him.”
“You were there when it happened.”
He cuts his eyes down at the counter, like he might shed a tear. I smile real big and stare at him. “It’s alright, Lester. You don’t have to put on for me. What was it like? Give me all the details.”
He looks up at me, and as I continue to smile and stare at him, I can see his expression change, ever so slightly, from fake grief to real fear. My smile becomes more genuine and his eyes drop away. He stands, digging in his pocket, tosses a wadded dollar onto the counter. Walking away, he says, “Be good, son.”
“I can’t make no promises.”
He throws a hand up over his shoulder and shuffles out the door. I look down at my muddy red dish.
Daddy once cooked a pig in the ground for a church supper. A few of those sour old men, assured by their inexperience, were positive nothing edible was coming out of the ground. But when Daddy unwrapped the swine, it was beautiful, golden and hollow-eyed. The sight of it made spit well up in everybody’s mouth, made everybody’s gut draw up and act pitiful like a house dog. But nobody knew how to start on it. Daddy looked around at them all waiting for somebody to make the first move. He took his filet knife, lopped the snout onto a paper plate, sliced off a hunk and ate.
I put it in neutral and let the front tires settle into the groove where their driveway meets the road. I gauged the distance and knew somehow there was exactly a thousand yards between me and Cheryl, that somehow it’d been preordained. The door in the middle and high windows on either side, the roof a low helmet—it was staring me down. The house knew, even if they didn’t. I kept the can to my nose and opened myself to any possible reason not to do it—but there was nothing. I throttled the engine till it rattled the cab. I raised the can and poured the gas over the back of my head and it burned down my body. I pictured Cheryl laughing at something stupid on tv. At the crash she’d glance in my direction—the form of her demise laughing hysterically for a final instant.
I popped the clutch and started eating the distance, skipping gears and yelling at the old rig like a football coach all the way to the front yard, where I released the wheel and clattered in an instant through the decorations and into the house, losing track of my body—a pair of eyes connected to a brain, floating behind the obliterating windshield and the world beyond. Just before impact I looked at the speedometer and it said eighty-one, and there was an incredible sound, indescribable—like a tanker truck crashing through a brick house. Things went dark and a piece of Sheetrock or something busted my nose, the wind blasting dust and debris from the cab, and through it I saw Cheryl and her old momma and daddy standing in the garden, staring at me with their mouths open and stupid looks on their faces, the old man’s rake falling slowly, and I knew I wasn’t dead.
The truck had slowed quite a bit as I neared the fence to the back pasture. I put the pedal back to the floor and retook the wheel around a hunk of insulation and little squares of glass, ripped through the barbed wire and bore down on the woods across the long downward slope, the sun hanging over the trees and glowing dust all around me. I met with the woods at probably a better speed than I’d hit the house, started mowing down eight-year-old pines quick as raindrops, till finally I bogged down way out in the middle of them, couldn’t go any further. A couple of limbs tore me up pretty good. Worse than the house, truth be told.
I sat there, starting to feel the scratches on my face and chest and arms. I looked over the cab at all the evergreen needles and pink insulation, the splinters and nails and shingles, at a two-by-six stuck plum through the passenger seat and out the back of the cab. I used my finger to ream a lot of the crud out of my mouth and flung it away. I felt burdened with energy, like a giant battery. I just sat and tried to get ahold of reality. Finally, I opened the door and climbed down amongst the bent and broken trees, finding it hard to stand, like I had wheels for feet. I made it to the toolbox behind the cab and got a crescent wrench, went and worked my way under the front of the truck. I lay there looking up at the steaming guts, listening to them hiss. Remembering my purpose, I found the brake line and broke the threads loose. I crawled out from under and stood. Trees loomed all around. I threw the wrench off into them, climbed back up into my seat and brought my gas-soaked shirt to my face. It burned so wonderfully, killing the germs, preventing infection. I took a few good long breaths and passed out.
I had a hell of a free young lawyer named Chuck Warburton. Our gears linked up nicely and together we formed a plan of attack. Chuck recalled a case in Dallas a few years back when a guy strangled his wife, put her body in the trunk and dumped her in a landfill an hour from his house, then got acquitted by claiming he’d been sleepwalking. Our plan was similar. I had to sell my guns to pay for the psychiatrist, who gave us a word, parasomnia, which basically means anything a person does while they’re not completely awake. I asked if that doesn’t cover just about everything. Chuck told me to trust the plan; he liked the look of the jury. He said they had a simple choice between believing the prosecution’s story—that I drove through the house to murder Cheryl and her parents while they were sitting peacefully inside—or our story—that I was heartsick, a good man, and a victim myself. He said when believing is a choice, which it almost always is, people will always choose what’s easiest on them.
Chuck told the courtroom that Cheryl was the most precious thing in the world to me, and I’d been obsessed with reconciling. The restraining order was bogus—she was manipulated by her controlling parents to believe up was down, right was wrong, love was rape. And the day of the incident—“An emotional day for all Americans,” said Chuck—I found myself in front of her house longing just to see her face, to hear her voice—“Who among us hasn’t known the agony of lost love?” asked Chuck—and I was so sleep deprived from my depression-induced insomnia, along with my dependency on these truck stop wake-up pills—“A menace!”—that I was not completely awake, believed, in fact, that I was dreaming when I drove through the house and into the woods.
We didn’t use the disconnected brake line. Chuck pointed out there were still brakes on the back tires and on the trailer. He made a big deal of my clean criminal record and lifelong affiliation with the church, and the head shrinker did his job, but it was me, ladies and gentlemen, that sold it. When the prosecutor cross-examined me he was awfully pleased with himself, like he saw through my bullshit. He brought out a picture the size of a large tv screen of the house with the truck-sized gash through it. He asked how it made me feel? It was an amazing picture, and I’d kill to have a copy of it one day, but I just shook my head real slow, wrinkled my mouth and started to weep at the thought of Cheryl and her folks being inside. I said it was just an absolute miracle they weren’t, the good Lord was watching out for them, and I thanked him for it every day. I looked to Cheryl as I was saying this, and I could see the gears turning. It wasn’t quite as obvious, but if you looked close she was about as confused as she’d been when standing among those tomato plants holding that dirt rake. As confused as she’d be the rest of her life.
The jury found me innocent of the charges—which were attempted first-degree murder and malicious mischief—and just as the world of possibilities was opening back up to me, the decrepit old judge, who hadn’t seemed to be paying attention most of the time, broke in and said the issue of the restraining order was not settled. He said even if I had “lost touch with reality” before starting up the driveway, I was still in violation because the distance from the road to the house was 980 yards. He gave me the maximum sentence of eighteen months. I asked Chuck could the judge do that and Chuck said he just did. I cried as I was being led out of the courtroom, looked over at Cheryl, who was starting to cry too, and mouthed the words “I love you.” I didn’t crack a smile till I was back in the cell.
I’m up for early release next month and my behavior has been exemplary. I’m a nonviolent offender and this place is overcrowded. In Bible study this morning, one of the guys asked if Judas or Pontius Pilate went to heaven? This man robbed and murdered his grandmother when he was a young meth head, and he wanted to know how those other men could be punished when their sins were part of God’s plan? The group talked for an hour and never figured it out, but it got me thinking about what I tried to do. I realized there had to be a reason they weren’t in the house and the tank didn’t blow. It just wasn’t meant to be, and I can’t help thinking it’s because I’m meant for something bigger.
Of course in your reality, which is my future, I know where I am and what I’m doing. But in my reality, right now, I’m sitting in the sun. Everybody else stays in the shade, but I like it out here. The hotter the better. I read or write or just watch the other guys struggle through the day. They call this the yard, but there’s no grass to speak of.
After Cheryl left I quit mowing, and the rain came in gallons that summer and the yard grew up nearly as tall as me, and it was far more interesting than all those years I’d kept it cut. All the variety of vegetation, the big mushy weeds with their flimsy thorns, and all the insects trapping, killing, eating, fucking, birthing, not thinking, but just living. Sometimes I’d sit and stare at it for God knows how long.