Leroy drove the entire way home, white-knuckled and raving, swerving at absurd speeds all over the road, the white dots between lanes sometimes jarring the car for almost a whole minute before Leroy righted the wayward bulk of the Mercedes back into our own lane. Instead of heading back to the 5, sadly missing a chance to go through Wasco again, we took highway 99 home, all the way up through the Central Valley, California’s backyard. Not prime real estate country, but there were many burned out old signs along the road that were nice to look at. Chet was in the back seat, mostly sleeping or making obscene non-sequiturs as we headed intrepidly to an unmarked grave. Leroy rambled on telling various wanton tales from his sordid tippling past. His eyes didn’t stay on the road as much as they should have, but the stories kept me entertained as I sat in the passenger’s seat rubbing my red eyes and watching the telephone wires race each other.
“There was this girl I knew in Oakland. She was a big girl, and had a nasty temper too. She lived above this bar I used to go to all the time. I went through this period there when I’d just go wandering out alone all night. I wasn’t working and I was doing some painting, but mostly I was just sitting around in my boxers on the couch all day like some guy in a Raymond Carver story. So I’d go out at night and just get blasted. I’d start in on the whiskey at some point and pretty soon it’d be last call and I’d be shit-faced with nowhere to go. And all the bar tenders knew me. They’d let me slide sometimes, call me a cab or find me a place to go to, maybe just a corner or a closet somewhere to sleep it off. I wasn’t too picky. But like I said, there was this chubby girl who lived above this place, and she’d come down and drink with me sometimes. And I remember this one night she offered to let me come up to her place after the bar closed, and I was like, well, um, I’m not sure, you know? But then she tells me she’s got some pot to smoke, so I’m like, um, yeah, sure, I can do that. So we go up to her place and we smoke some weed, and then she starts getting all physical with me. And she’s a very large woman, which I never really thought about much until this point. I mean she’s like Nell Carter big. So she’s trying to climb on top of me, and, man, I’m like really getting scared at this point that I’m like going to suffocate or something. My only chance is to slide out from under her and get up on top, you know. I mean, this girl did smoke me out. I owed her something. I don’t know. I’m not too clear on all the details of that first encounter, but I was like, oh well, okay, let’s have a go at it, you know? And so we did. It wasn’t too memorable or anything. I remember really working away at her, really having a time of it, you know? And then it was over and we slept and I went home in the morning. So this other time, and now I’m in real dire straits, not much money, no place to go home to, and next thing I know I’m drunk and yep, it’s two in the morning and they’re kicking me out of the bar, and I’m getting all pissed off and kind of raising some hell in there. It was like a Tuesday night or something and nobody else was in the bar expect me. But I didn’t want to go, seeing as I had no place to go home to. My roommates had just kicked me out and all my stuff, or what was left of it after my many trips to the pawnshop, was out in the front yard getting soaked by sprinklers. I was in bad shape. I’d just been wandering around all day drinking Thunderbird out of a paper bag like some old wino or something. So I get kicked out of the bar, and I’m screaming and telling them all to go fuck themselves and all that, stomping around and pulling up flowers out of the tree wells and what not. And finally I try to get in a cab, but realize that I’ve got no money and the guy takes off without me. I don’t know where I was going to go anyway. So I’m standing there stranded, really drunk, and I just sit down on the curb and put my head in my hands. Then I hear this girl’s voice yelling down to me. It’s the portly bird who lives above the bar and she is calling down to me. I start screaming at her to shut the fuck up and leave me the fuck alone and to go back inside and bake some fucking cookies or something. But she keeps telling me to come on up, and finally I’m like, okay, what the fuck, it’s my only option left. So I suck it up and go on up there. And I ask her if she has any pot and she smokes me out again, and then, yep, it’s fish and whale time again. But I got a place to stay for the night.”
We stopped at a gas station in the middle of nowhere and Chet took out his pocketknife lighter and used it to light a cigarette. Afterwards he started waving it around, pretending he was cutting up the biker from State Line with it. It was very entertaining until the guy behind the counter came out and told us to shove off and get the hell away from his property or he was going to call the cops. The blade flashed in the sun as Chet put the thing away and we all jumped in the car and drove off.
Leroy continued with his stories, becoming downright prolix at times, spinning his rococo yarns like he was the damn reincarnation of Scheherazade or something.
“I never finished telling you about this girl Erilyn. She was very young and small, kind of bird-like, mousey I guess you’d say. We had sex a few times a week for a couple months, and you know, I thought that was that. But that was most certainly not that for her. She went nuts. Se kept coming over to my place, you know, showing up unannounced at like 3 in the morning or something, and I’d have to let her in. She always had some excuse like she was scared to walk around in the Mission at night. It was such bullshit. She lived on fucking Hyde and Leavenworth in the Tenderloin. Anyway, so she’s just not getting the message that I really don’t want her around anymore. She keeps calling me all the time, at all hours, and I just can’t get her to understand that there is really nothing between us. It’s just sex, you know? So finally one night I tell her. I just say, ‘I can’t do this right now. I’m going through a really rough time in my life and I just can’t have this kind of a serious relationship or whatever,’ and I tell her that she needs to stop calling me and to get out of my life and all that. Well, at abut ten in the morning one day I’m awoken out of a deep slumber by this loud thumping sound outside my window. I’m thinking, fuck, did somebody just crash their car into my house? What the fuck? I look out my window and I see her out there throwing a fucking brick at my house. It hits right by my window, and I don’t want to pay for a fucking broken window, and so I go outside, and I’m in my underwear still, and there she is throwing a fucking brick at my house. As soon as I get outside she picks the brick up and throws it at me. Now I don’t know if I dodged it like fucking Remo Williams, or maybe it just bounced off me because it was such a soft toss from this dainty little lady. I’m not sure. But anyway, she comes after me and starts kicking me, and she fucking punches me in the face. I’d just been woken out of a dead sleep, and I’m still all groggy, and I’m standing there in my goddamn underwear, and I see this car start to crawl by real slow and I’m just like, fuck, I’ve got to get this girl in off of the street, you know? So I throw her into my house and she dashes up the stairs, and I’m chasing after her, but she’s really fucking quick. I get up to the kitchen and she’s throwing my toaster across the room, and she’s screaming and pulling open all of the drawers and throwing utensils all over the place. Finally I grab her and start really screaming at her, you know, telling her to stop acting like a crazy person and to shut the fuck up, and I’m screaming so loud I swear I start to lose my voice. And she’s just going ape shit and is trying to punch at me. I got so fucking pissed off. I mean, come on, we hadn’t even really been dating. And she’s acting like this? She was just beyond any kind of reasoning. I asked her why she was doing this, and she just said, very calmly, ‘Revenge.’ What the fuck? Revenge? It wasn’t like we’d been married and I’d slept with her best friend or something. We’d hardly even spent much time together at all. She was like twenty years old and wanted to be a fashion designer in New York. That’s all I knew about her, and it was all trivial bullshit as far as I was concerned. So I pick her up off the ground, I’m really fucking angry at this point. I mean, she’s making a fucking mess of my place, being ridiculously loud, and it’s like 10:30 in the am. And I’m holding her there by the shoulders, and she’s like spitting at me and stuff, and I’m like, ‘Lady, you need to calm down.’ And she spits in my fucking face! So I take her and just fucking throw her across the room. It was like she was a little doll. I had to do it. There was no other way. The whole thing was insane. Eventually she calms down enough to start crying, and then she tells me to call her a cab. So I call her a cab and she goes on back to where she came from I guess. I don’t know. I haven’t heard from her since.”
I heard Chet say, “We almost just died.” I looked out my window. The shining metal surface of a tank truck was way closer to my window than it should have been. It veered away in a quick blur as Leroy jerked us back away from it. I watched as the giant silver cylinder moved away and fell behind us in the side mirror. A brush with death. Now our trip was complete. Everyone remained calm as we drove on, as if nothing had happened. Leaning my head back against my seat, I started counting the telephone polls going by. The clouds were forming in strips like ripped-up gauze pads and drifting shards of tails of things that looked like curlicues shifting shapes into ampersands and epaulettes of some unknown war, in some unknowable future, from which I’d forever be hiding, absconding in some kind of bored abeyance, a ridiculous inanition that would hold me a happy and content prisoner for however long I allowed it to, as I moped about in a tiny cell of lassitude, hibernating, chained and holding the key to my own chains, sheltered from the world of real events and things that happened.
I sank into the dank and sour leather of the seat, closing my eyes for a few minutes at a time only to have to reopen them again because they were stinging or the car was jerking around or Leroy was saying, "Holy shit! Look at that!" And I'd open up my eyes and look around outside, and there would be some nefarious or disharmonious imbalance in the scenery, a few letters still lit up on a mostly-dead neon sign scurrilously spelling out just, "HO," instead of, "HOTEL," or a bird carcass smashed up against a billboard, or the shredded remains of a movie screen at what was left of a Drive-In movie theatre—a silent windswept graveyard marked by barren wooden poles stripped of their speakers. Everything was just the long forgotten and slowly rotting remains of yesterday not yet replaced by the tidy, compact, expedient world of today, a lost world where time slowed down and became lazy enough to not let beauty just whistle by in the wind. This place was moving to its own eternal rhythms, keeping time to a beat that had sadly stopped pulsating a generation or so before, crawling along at its own pace and in its own world of katydids and night skies thick with stars; of old, gutted, rust-caked, husks of ancient cars with weed-choked engines set out in the middle of cornfields or rotting on the cracked slabs of cement in the remains of a parking lot; a world now ruled by the calculating and uncaring addiction of methamphetamine and low wages—another slit from a razor on the pock-marked and brutally scarred face of just-getting-by. Times were tough for the central valley.
We didn’t stop anywhere off the 99. Not even when I saw a bullet-ridden wooden sign reading, “Welcome to Chowchilla!” I remembered seeing some made-for-TV movie about the place when I was younger. Something about a bus driver being kidnapped or something. The sign said 11,127 people lived there. I didn’t believe it. Probably more like 127 people. That was about right.
We just kept driving, speeding by with the radio blasting, looking out at this umbrageous, subfusc, forlorn world so different from the purposeless insularity of the Ritzy and glamorous and expendably grand one we’d just left. Disease was tearing them both a part. In one it was a disease that was constantly feeding on itself, digesting its own substance and form as fast as it could just to regurgitate it and eat it all over again. A self sustaining death that never died, yet never really lived either, never went fallow or grew old or faded out, but also never had any type of meaningful or real existence other than the fact of its own consistent and speedy demise. But, in this other world, this place of ancient things slowly falling out of favor and going to pot in the shade of poplar trees, there was another more benign and slow-working disease, one that was just as deadly, yet one that happened in the natural course of human events, things with real meanings and consequences. And I was seeing its lasting imprints and indefatigable scars on the scenery. Something about it made me sad, and I decided to turn up the radio and not look outside so much anymore.