There was the loudest crash he had ever heard. The sound of breaking glass and spewing liquids, mashed together with rocks kicking and thin, dried branches snapping. There was a chorus of groans, the kind of scraping groans that would be made by a two-ton lava rock being dragged, violently along a chalkboard surface. He was overcome by the pulling and pushing vibrations caused by crumpling steel.
Then the symphony of eardrum-shattering noise crawled to a halt. The only sounds remaining were that of the open door indicator, and one stuttering windshield wiper that was erratically beating itself against the passenger side windshield post. The automobile rocked, slowly, poorly balanced on its roof. He contemplated the immense complexity of the situation for a few seconds and then slowly released the seatbelt, fell to the ceiling, and crawled out through the shattered driver-side window out onto the broken glass that was strewn on the highway shoulder. Not a single scratch, but his head was pounding as if a platoon of war drummers from ancient cultures long passed had chosen his cranium as a grand place to start their procession. He had survived the stupidest thing he had ever done, and all he could think of was that he left his credit card back at the Splendid Donkey. His unhealthy love affair with the Donkey contributed the most to the untimely destruction of his automobile. There were other establishments which annied up on behalf of his self-destructive evening, but the Donk is where he neglected to sign off on a rather large bar tab. Oh how he hated to leave an open tab fluttering about after an extended evening, granting some resentful bartender the right to decide how much gratuity would be leveled against the liquid principle.
“They always charge me an extra twenty percent on my tab when I fucking walk that shit.” He muttered to himself, pulling up to vertical, noting that the impact of the crash, probably the first light pole, had knocked the drunk out of him. He started to systematically pat his pockets, intending to take inventory for other items potentially misplaced during the evening’s drunken, substance-laced lunacy. Specifically, he needed his phone to call someone, although he had no usable names in mind, to come and pick him up.
Checking his pockets for his cell phone, he found many things missing. The phone was included in this mental list of curiously absent items. Also missing were his wallet, house keys, two packs of “complimentary” Camel Menthols, his favorite Jim Beam labeled Zippo, and a shot glass he wrangled from some already-forgotten-shot-bar at some already-forgotten-time during the night.
Surely that shot glass would have broken and been imbedded in his knee, since the parking brake sure felt painfully lodged there not but ninety seconds ago. He shrugged the loss of these personal effects as a drunk-tax, taken by the general populace for putting up with this evening’s raucous antics.
At least they left him his car keys, he thought, which was the one thing they DEFINITELY should have taken.
He slumped onto the glass-speckled freeway shoulder, wondering how to handle this rather ridiculous situation. He also wondered where all the other cars were. He estimated that it was only three in the morning. Surely he wasn’t the only traveler out there. But if he was the lone drunkard out there, lucky thing. For they might have gotten tangled up in his self-inflicted mess. But then again, fuck ‘em if they had gotten tangled. That would be their fate, a fate as miserable as he felt. Amazing, aside from the feeling that his head was being beaten by aboriginal tribesmen gone bat-shit with the bass, he was in pristine condition. Hell, he felt better than he did this morning.
Oh. This morning. What an awful day this morning’s cruel sun introduced to him.
His inner voice struck up a conversation with itself concerning the news he received today about Tim, his best friend from high school, the guy who was his best man at his wedding four years ago… “Suicide? Fucking asshole. He stole the twenty years we shared. The times we conquered, the times we suffered, and the times we just enjoyed being friends together. He stole all that with a long walk off the short observation deck of some office building in San Francisco. I don’t even know what commodities are, let alone how trading them could push a person to that. Fuck him… but what about his kid? Holy… what about MY kids? Jesus, I really need to get my credit card and get home. I need a really good story to platter-out for Amy. She’ll be expecting a really good one this time. But the car… man, that’s a loss. She’s going to kill me.”
The car was now silent. No more dinging indicators, irritable wipers, or any other “last gasps” from the fading automobile. The Corolla was ready to be tire-tagged.
All those shots… the coke… whatever the hell those pills were that he bought from that pimply-faced nerd at the collegiate club… How the hell did he end up there anyhow? What was he thinking? That he could just walk back into being young and strapping? That he could just continue acting like his life had no limits? Of course there are limits to being him. Family concerns, job obligations, pensions to build, IRAs to contribute to, mortgages to be met, and all the other trappings of middle-age. Lines of cocaine and unmarked pills from Mexico do not factor well into the settled life that is: married with children.
But, life is for living, he argued against himself. The kids still get fed. The bills, eventually, get handled. Responsibilities, the important ones at least, get met. But not like this. Certainly not by breaking loose and letting sanity take a breather. That is a great way to end up passing out at the wheel, and end up sitting alone on a highway shoulder, halfway from home, next to the simmering hulk of metal that once was your mode of transportation, with no money or identification. This, unfortunately, is the picture of both irresponsibility and the beginnings of personal disaster. Must pick up the pieces, and sweep them under the rug. Time to get up and start walking. Time to find a solution to these, most immediate, problems.
Just as he started walking back toward the last exit he passed, a pickup truck appeared on the horizon, careening toward him. Loud yet indiscernible music was blaring from the cab. He heard the sound of “hooting and hollering” from what sounded like drunken teenage boys, but he could not be sure. The truck, in dire need of maintenance, was rather loud with the sounds of slapping valves, a ticking alternator, squeaking springs, and various loosened parts rattling about in the engine compartment. The truck must have been older than he was, and at thirty-six, this put the truck in the category of “unstable at any speed”. He stepped off the highway entirely, hiding in the weeds to avoid any possible encounter with the decrepit truck’s occupants. It smoked and squealed as it approached him at a speed well beyond the limit and slowed as it neared his overturned Toyota, smoking on the shoulder. After stopping and pausing for a few seconds by the wreck, one white reverse light illuminated, and the truck was floored back in his direction.
It slid to a halt in front of him, and through the thick combination of burning tire steam and various smoking contraband that signaled from the cab and the bed, he made out four characters. Two were up front, and two appeared to be partying in the open-air of the rear. They all seemed to be singing different music, poorly, or perhaps just babbling to themselves. But all four were extremely animate, and in exceptionally good moods. He figured they were all out raising hell, and were high/drunk/stoned/all of the above. The driver leaned over his passenger and yelled out.
“Hey Jay, you need a ride buddy? The party wagon has arrived!” The passenger chimed in, “Fuckinaye Jay! How you been bro! Shit man, we been lookin’ for yer ass for like, forever or some shit.” The two strangers in the bed became eerily quiet. Jay approached the truck, apprehensively, crinkling his brow and darting his looks back and forth between the cab and the bed as he emerged from the tall grasses, hoping to recognize someone’s face before he got within arms’ length of anyone. How did they know his name? Drinking mates from earlier in the evening? Bounty hunters? Just because they knew his name was certainly no indication that they had friendly intentions toward him. He quickly tallied up, and estimated that roughly half the people on the planet who knew him by name would surely be interested in exacting something evil upon him for something he had done long ago, wrongs he had long forgotten.
But he never forgot a face. If he could just get close enough to make out some features, ethnicity, gender, ANYTHING. But it really did not matter. He was prone, in the middle of nowhere. If they wanted to hurt him, then their luck in catching him in such a vulnerable state was beyond fortuitous. It would be downright karmic, and certainly not in his favor.
A voice popped up from the bed, “it’s about time. Jesus, I need the rest.” It didn’t seem to be aimed at him directly, but it had been made clear enough for him, specifically, to hear. Jay could make out the fellow who said it, as the comment-maker had peeped into the highway floodlight to speak. He was frightfully gaunt, mid twenties, scraggly mop of greasy dark hair, was poorly shaven, and had unsightly bags under his reddened eyes. Not the kind of red one gets from a few merry tokes, but more like the semi-puffed look of one who just finished an extended sobbing session. He was, in a word, wretched. The other person in the bed stayed quiet, hidden by the shadow of the cab, but Jay could feel that person’s mysterious eyes inching all over him, estimating and calculating him, sizing him up. The driver chimed back in, impatient, “come on! Get in for Christ’s sake, we don’t have all night to throw this thing off right!” The fellow in the passenger seat leaned out of the window with his pale-skinned, black-haired right arm, thumbs up, and said “they picked me up a bit back too, guy! Safest journeymen you’ll find at this time of night!” He was all smiles, and appeared rather healthy and friendly (especially when compared to the wretch in the rear). “Dude, they’ll drop you off wherever you need to go, just hop on in,” the friendly, hairy armed fellow offered.
Jay approached the passenger door of the cab, and the hairy arm extended itself in greeting. The handshake was warm, but somewhat overzealous considering they were strangers. It felt like the kind of handshake one gets when a new employer announces that you “got the job buddy!” This made Jay a tad uncomfortable, but then again, these odd travelers were his only ticket back to The Splendid Donkey. He intended to respond favorably to any hospitality they displayed, and urgently to any hostilities. Brevity seemed the best method to ensure he could properly gauge their intent. “Heya, fellas, uh, I really just need to get back to The Donk. Is that alright? Just a quick, drop-off kind of thing. I don’t want to inconvenience anyone.” The driver interrupted the handshake, reaching over Mr. Friendly and opening the passenger door. “Just get in bro. We got you covered. Shit to do. Places to go. Things to get done. Just get the fuck in already.”
This made for an uncomfortable situation. He did not know this Driver, and aside from the rather positive remark from the passenger, he was not feeling an honest, welcoming vibe from the group. However, the card needed to be retrieved from the bartenders of The Donk. Jay disliked the driver’s intensity, but he ascended into the back of the cab anyway, only to find there was someone already there. It was a limp, face-down, average sized male body, and it was still warm. The fact that this person was still alive provided both relief, and confusion to Jay.
“Uhhh, okay. There’s someone back here already, and he doesn’t look too good.”
The driver slammed it into drive, sending the passenger door into the small of Jay’s back, knocking him onto the sleeping body. “He’s fine. Tylenol PM or some shit, he always does that after a yay-bender” advised the driver as the truck quickly hit and surpassed the speed limit. “Damn, I was just there myself an hour ago. I think that might have caused me to pass out at the wheel. That’s how my car got like that.” Immediately after saying this, Jay was struck by a sense of shame – for telling perfect strangers that he was coked up earlier – paralleled with a sense of pointless repetition – because they acted as if they were already aware and were not in need of an explanation as to how he ended up in the middle of nowhere, in the weeds, next to a (now) burning, overturned automobile.
He was sitting on top of Mr. Tylenol, and really had no options but to continue doing so. The guy was taking up every inch of seat-friendly surface, filling the entire sliver of space behind the two front seats. Jay did his best to part the guy’s legs, and nestle down between them. He had been passed out like that too many times to pretend he had no sympathy for him.
After settling in, Jay turned to look out the rear window at the shrinking wreckage that was his first effort at being a good parent. Toyotas really are safe cars, he thought to himself. If his two boys had been with him in an accident like that, he felt sure that they would all have walked away, just as he had, without a scratch. He was a little disappointed that the airbags neglected to function though. Surely that wreck would have triggered their response. Moot point though. He walked away from it, and these guys would help him get his card back, and then he would catch a cab back home and claim the auto got stolen from the parking lot. Oh, and he had left his keys and phone and other effects in there too, as he was still straining to remember where the hell they had been lost during the evening. A convenient excuse to explain the whole mess. Wonderful! Maybe Amy would take pity on him for once. Maybe the car-jacking (oh yeah, even better than simple GTA!) would combine with what she already knew about Tim’s leap to infinity. Yes, she would certainly have to change her tune now. She would surely lay off him for the rest of the week, and stop nagging him about the bills, and the kids, and the goddamn job-thing, and the little bit (just a little bit for god’s sake) of venting over the past few months. He had to do something to release some steam. Besides, it really is not that big a deal. She needs to chill out about all that anyway. Blame it on midlife crisis or whatever. A little fun never hurt anyone. Ergo, a couple of years stacked with fun seemed like exactly what he needed. In fact, it continued to be very therapeutic. Raising two boys is a-lot of responsibility. Plus, his job was a disaster of misapplied career notions. She knows he is not cut out for all that fluorescent light and furry cubicle-wall-bullshit. She knows it is poisoning his soul. For the love of Pete, can’t she understand that he is seriously losing himself amongst all these overly-expectant pressures? Can’t she see that this is what death looks like to a man? His nights out are more than just a brief interlude between work (always leave office early) and dropping the boys off at school (whenever he wakes up at home, and early enough). It is where he reclaims his God-given right to manhood! His nights out provide him his only opportunity to reclaim himself as a man after all the shameful and numerous emasculating events of the day. How can she, with a clear conscious, plan and plot to barricade his only remaining path to who he was before all of these “responsibilities” were unfairly leveled upon him? Especially in light of Tim’s grim and unscheduled departure? She will be without the benefit of high ground this time. She will be forced to compromise this time. This time, goddamnit, will be his time.
As a grin of self-righteousness started to make its way across his lips, the mug of the Wretch from the truck bed appeared, inches from his, on the other side of the rear window. It startled Jay, and he must have showed this fear physically, because he could see the Mysterious guy nodding with laughter and then flick a cigarette off the skull of Mr. Wretch. The grim face remained staring at Jay, not even wincing as the sparks and ash fireworked off of the side of his forehead. His stare was impenetrable, and it made Jay extremely uncomfortable.
Within that stare, Jay felt very small and unimportant. What the hell is this guy’s problem? It is the same stare his father used to give him when he returned home with sub-par grades. The same look his coach gave him when he ran the wrong pattern for the fifth time in a row. It was the same look he had seen in Tim’s eyes, the last time they saw each other after Christmas. Those eyes made him feel so stupid for allowing himself to drink so much, for being too weak to avoid the cocaine, the K, X, A, E… for not being stronger for his boys. For being too stupid to think his way out of depression. For being too slow to see all the problems before they stampeded over him and his pointless existence. He started to feel anger toward his callous rejection of responsibility, for even considering lying to Amy, and for jeopardizing what little he had left to offer his sons, Fred and Eric. That stare was the same stare Fred would be giving him tomorrow morning while jiggling Jay’s shoulder, when Jay woke up on the couch, for the third time this week. That stare was the look of disappointment. It was the look that a child gives when it knows that what it is seeing is completely broken, but cannot be sure because it has never seen anything work properly. Jay is that broken thing to his boys. That is what those worthless eyes are saying. He is the reason they have never seen anything work properly. They are the product of a failure. A man with no discipline, no work ethic, and no direction…
These feelings moved him from anger to sadness. Those judging eyes. Those eyes could see the true image of him, and reflected that ugliness, and it really hurt to admit the truth of it all. Just like dad, just like Coach, just like Fred, just like he looked at Tim. The truth of failure, and of a life composed of ignored opportunities. A true waste of… or was it just the alcohol talking him down? He re-focused on the piercing stare, and could once again make out the face of that Wretch. That worthless, pathetic looking vagrant of a Wretch. HE is judging. HE is trying to push the situation. HE is the antagonist here.
They stared at each other for what seemed like a second eternity, until Jay had reached his limit and slammed a fist into the window, right between Wretch’s eyes. It cracked the glass, but did not penetrate. Wretch turned back to Mr. Mysterious and they both started laughing and prodding each other, in the same friendly-yet-threatening-and-taunting way that Jay would pal around with his football buddies in the locker room back in high school. They seemed to be laughing at Jay’s reaction, but it all seemed more manic than that. They could have been laughing at something hilarious that happened last month, when and where they had decided to reserve the camaraderie for a later occasion. Such as a time when perhaps some stranger might try to punch one of them, like a moron, through tempered glass. It was, just like the glass, a tempered thing. Their celebrating seemed forced, like the kind of celebrating that two bitter cellmates might be seen having after watching the winning run scored by a team that they both just-so-happened to be rooting for, while they both know they might be knifing each other ten minutes later. Their celebratory embrace and congratulatory prodding quickly dissipated. The Wretch moved back to his side of the bed and stared away from Jay, Mysterious lit up another smoke while staring and grinning at the Wretch, and Jay’s eyes began to focus, intently on the crack he invented in the glass. It was a substantial crack, and for reasons he had trouble reconciling, he really liked it.
Mr. Friendly turned around and with the kindest smile, tapped Jay’s shoulder and offered a lit joint. “Looks like you could use some comfort my friend. It’s really good stuff, BC bud. Got it up in Canada.” Jay considered the bud, then motioned to Mr. Tylenol, still motionless beneath him, “same thing that hit him?” Friendly chirped, “Damn straight! The best there is!” Jay felt the body underneath him stir slightly, and then looked in the rear view mirror to catch the yes-nodding eyes of the driver. Yes, it will do you good, the eyes were consoling him, coolly recommending the hit. He took it from Friendly’s fingertips, sat back, and took a deep toke. He was right. Damn good stuff. Almost instantaneously, it muddied up his thoughts, chasing away all the pointless guilt, putting a thick blanket over the beaming light of self-consciousness. Fuck it. After a second draw from the odorous weed, Jay heard himself say aloud, “let’s burn this mutherfucker down! Damn straight. DAMN STRAIGHT!” Friendly and the driver both began laughing and high-fived each other. Mr. Tylenol turned over, just enough to see Jay’s face, and yelled out “that’s what I’m talkin’ about!” Friendly reached down between his legs and produced a six-pack of Lonestar tallboys. He cracked the first open and shot-gunned it. The driver reached over, pawed one from the ring, shook it violently and pointed it over his right shoulder as he opened it. Beer sprayed all over a visibly excited Mr. Tylenol. The suds hit the rear window, and poured over the back of the chair. The wretch and Mr. Mysterious started to light and fire Roman Candles behind the truck while the driver pulled a dangerously tight u-turn over the esplanade. Lit blackcats were popping into the cab faster than Mr. Friendly could toss them back to the bed. The clapping of small explosives and the thick smell of sulfur in the cab did not hinder him from continuing to puff on the herb. Tylenol wriggled his feet from under Jay, and sat himself up. He leaned over, removed a paper bag from the pouch on the back of the passenger seat and extracted a handful of mismatched pills. “Turn that shit up!” He yelled while continuing to rummage through the sack of street pharmaceuticals. Jay could feel the two in the bed of the truck jumping up and down as they all sped back toward town. “Hey,” Mr. Tylenol pulled Jay’s attention from the popping joint. “This’ll make that bud better than hand grenade practice at the ice capades.” He extended a closed, cupped hand, fingers down, to Jay. “I hate the fucking ice capades,” answered Jay. “Well then, load the fuck up.” Four pills of different shape, color, and material were dropped into Jay’s expectant palm. “Damn straight,” he said, as he shoveled them into his smoking maw, washing them into his system with more National Beer of Texas than his mouth could hold. The overflow drizzled down the sides of his mouth and onto his shirt and lap, pooling around his zipper. A blackcat zoomed in through the passenger window, landed on his crotch, fizzled for a second in the small puddle of pooled beer, but then popped anyway. Jay did not even flinch at the burn it made on his right elbow, the singing of his cargo pants, or the foul smell of burned beer that wafted up from the vicinity of his testicals. He continued to study the smoking fatty between his fingers. This night was just beginning, and the insanity that flooded through his body was the most normal sense of being he had felt in the last hour.
These guys were his favorite brand of crazy. The wreckage of responsibility which he left on the highway shoulder was completely purged from his psyche. The moon felt full, and it was high time to let some hell out. Damn straight.