March 5, 2014 § 7 Comments
Somewhere between Columbus and Smithville Turner came down. The clear moonlit night rushed into and was thrust away from the windshield as the big motor pushed the Chevy effortlessly along the highway. Clem had cracked her window halfway and was smoking a cigarette. “Feeling better?” she asked.
“Yeah,” he said.
“You were down at the bottom of a pretty black hole there for a while. Thought I might have to come lookin’ for you.”
“How could you tell?”
She smiled. “Hmmm. Was it the wrenched expression on your face that looked like you were taking the world’s longest crap? For two solid hours? Yeah, that might have been it.”
“I hate pot. Makes me paranoid. And that beach weed is nasty, just nasty sick gross. How in the world will you sell it? Nobody’s gonna buy that stuff. You won’t be able to give it away.”
“Sure I will. High school kids’ll buy anything as long as it gets them high. They won’t care. I’ve seen schoolkids pay good money for the worst stuff you can imagine. Transmission fluid, airplane glue, they do not fucking care as long as they get high.”
“Let me get this straight, Clem. You’re going to target schoolkids?”
“Sure. Why not? Everybody knows kids do drugs. I did. You did. Plus, this beach weed will be cheap, so it’s like a discount. Easy on their budget.”
“I hadn’t thought of that. You’re actually doing them a favor. ‘Clem’s Discount Illegal Drug Sales.’ Kind of like the K-Mart of drug dealers.”
She smiled. “Pretty nice of me, don’t you think?” She spit out the window. “Stuff does taste pretty nasty, though.”
“Actually, it’s not really very nice of you at all. You’re preying on kids. Pot may not be the ‘demon weed,’ but it never helped any kid who was struggling in school.”
She rolled her eyes. “These are practically adults, Turner. Little stoner delinquent druggies who listen to Rush and bang each other and get high. They’re old enough to make up their minds about which drugs they want to take and they don’t need you or me acting like their parents. If they wanna get high let ’em get high. Kids just wanna get hi-igh, kids just wanna get hiiiiiiigh … plus, we need the money. Right?”
“You need the money.”
“Sure do, sweetcakes. You know why? ‘Cause mommy ain’t sending me monthly checks so I can fart around on my girlfriend’s couch reading some dumbass book so some dumbass college teacher can give me a dumbass grade so I can go out and be a doctor or a lawyer or an Indian chief and swindle people so I can have enough money to give to my kids and start the whole damn thing over again. You don’t like dealing or hooking, Turner, so how the fuck would you be paying the rent if mommy weren’t sending you those checks?”
His cheeks were burning. “I’d do something you’ve never done.”
“Like what, Mr. Philosphizer?”
“I’d get a fucking job. You think the only kinds of people in the world are rich kids, hookers, and dealers?”
“I know which one you are. And I know without that little monthly check you’d be out on your ass and I wouldn’t be gettin’ any holypants lectures about selling pot to stoner high school dropouts.” Her anger made the words hard and sharp. “And why the hell is some job slinging shit in a Denny’s more honorable than selling pot? Who made pot illegal? Some asshole in Congress, that’s who, so he could make a billion off tobacco or alcohol or some bullshit they peddle in hospitals that you can’t buy without a prescription. You ever worked in a restaurant?”
“It’s shit work, Turner. I’ve done it. People treat you like shit, the men ogle your tits and ask you for a date while their fucking wives are in the ladies’ room, snotty little brats spill shit on the floor, they tell you the food’s for shit after clearing off half the plate, they run you shitass ragged and then leave a fifty-cent tip. At least when they’re lying on top of you it’s over in five minutes and there’s enough cash left over to make rent.”
“When they’re not throwing you of the pickup at 50 miles an hour.”
“Right, or raping you or cursing you or threatening to beat you up if you don’t do their cousin as a freebie, but you know what? I’ve seen waitresses slip on grease in the kitchen and get third degree burns on their faces and get shitcanned for not showing up the next day. I’ve spent enough time in emergency rooms getting my own broken ass fixed to know what happens on job sites. People get hurt, fucked over, fired, and left for dead, and if they’re lucky some ambulance chasing douchebag takes their case, gets them a few bucks and keeps the rest of it for himself. So tell me again about how you’re gonna go get a job and protect the youth from the evil drug dealer Clementine? What job are you gonna get, Turner?”
“I don’t need to get one yet.”
She snorted. “Exactly my fucking point.” She blew a cloud of cigarette smoke in his face. “You know what’s weird about you?”
“Here you are all healthy and shit and you’ve never asked me to quit blowing smoke in your face.” She blew some more smoke in his face. “Doesn’t it gross you out?”
“I knew it.” She exhaled the next breath out the window. “So how come, Turner?”
“How come what?”
“How come you never asked me to stop?”
“Aside from the fact that I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t?”
“Yeah. Aside from that.”
“Because I’ve been waiting.”
“Waiting for what?”
“Waiting for you to bring it up.”
“Oh crapcakes. What if I’d never brought it up?”
“Then we’d never have talked about it.”
“You are completely nucking futs,” she laughed. “Okay, I’ve brought it up. Now what?”
“Would you mind not blowing smoke in my face?”
“Just like that? That’s all you have to say?” She screwed up her face. “Of course I’ll stop. Anything else?” Her left hand was on the wheel and her right hand was on his thigh as the ash crumbled off his leg and onto the floorboard.
“Would you mind throwing those things away and never smoking them again?”
She looked straight ahead and flicked the glowing butt out the window. “You know how many times in my life I’ve thrown away a pack of cigarettes?”
“One.” Then she grabbed the almost-full pack of Marlboros off the dashboard and tossed them out, too. “What’s next, hon?” she asked with a giggle. “Do we start going to church now?”
“Fuck church,” he laughed.
She licked her lips. “I like the way half of that sounds.”
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March 4, 2014 § 10 Comments
Rather than take the ferry back, they left the beach and continued up the peninsula, cut over at High Island, and went north to I-10.
“Aren’t there going to be a lot of cops on the Interstate?” Turner asked.
“Yeah. But we’ll draw a lot more attention driving through little towns off the main road at 2:00 AM than we will on the highway.”
“We’re gonna get busted,” Turner said. What had begun as a happy, pleasant high started to creep ever so slightly to the edge of paranoia. He settled back into the vinyl seat awaiting the monster. This is how it always was and this was why he’d stopped smoking dope in junior high school. He loved that first buzz, but the paranoia ate him alive. His mind lingered for a moment on the word “busted.”
“Have you ever been to jail, Clem?”
She was giggly and happy. “Sure. That beach weed making you curious? That’s a very un-Turnerlike question.”
Then it flipped. The good vibe was gone, instantly overwhelmed by terror. Every car was either a cruiser or an undercover policeman. Turner coiled up into a fetal ball even though he was still sitting upright. The speeding Impala took him right back to that summer morning waiting for the white-and-yellow HouTran bus to haul him to Sharpstown High, “A secondary school named after a fucking real estate swindler,” he thought.
Wayne had passed around the little one-hit pipe and when the bus picked them up they were stoned solid. By eight o’clock on a June morning in Houston they were already soaked to the skin in sweat and humidity, and the doors to the air-conditioned bus opened like the gates of heaven. They stumbled to the back of the bus and Turner wedged himself up against the window, but after a few minutes he had become so paranoid about getting caught while stoned he stopped looking out the window and repeatedly blew his breath into his cupped palm then inhaled it. “Does that smell like I’m stoned?” he kept asking himself, repeating the breath test over and over.
“What the fuck are you doing?” Julio asked him.
“I’m checking to see if my breath smells like I’m stoned.”
“Fuck yeah you smell like you’re stoned, and even if you didn’t you look totally wasted. Open your fucking eyes, dude, they’re hanging three-quarters shut. And use some of this.” He handed Turner a plastic bottle of Visine. Then they all laughed and Turner forgot about the spies and the friends of his parents who were riding the bus waiting to rat him out. The bus driver kept glowering at them in the giant rearview mirror. “He knows we’re stoned,” Turner thought, falling into the paranoid hole again. “I wonder if he knows Dad?”
In order to force his mind out the bad place it had fallen into, Turner focused all of his attention on the pull cable that ran the length of the bus. The cable was attached at regular intervals to small rectangular sockets, and when you yanked the cable, the socket let out a ring and the driver knew to let you out at the next stop. One of those sockets was right above Turner’s head, next to the electrical panel that operated the rear doors.
The paranoia, unfortunately, was becoming something much worse. Turner knew that you couldn’t hallucinate on pot, but he was starting to hallucinate. It was scaring him out of his mind. The harder he looked at the socket and the electrical panel by the doors, the crazier things got. The bus stopped to let off a passenger and the electrical panel appeared to break out in flames.
“Oh, shit,” Turner thought. “If I get up and jump off the bus everyone’s going to know I’m stoned. But if I stay here I’ll get burned to death. But if it’s just a hallucination so all I have to do is stay calm. Just stay calm. Unless of course it really is on fire.” This terrible trap of three untenable options raced on, over and over in an infinite loop. His heart was racing as his mind toyed with the flames that were now jumping and leaping out of the electrical panel.
“Pretty soon the bus will catch on fire,” he said. “I’m so fucking stoned. This is the most stoned I’ve ever been. I wish we’d hurry up and get to school. I’m really not that stoned. I’m so fucking stoned.” He looked out the window and saw the debarked passengers, then looked back at the burning interior of the bus and its magical hues, then put his head between his knees, resisting every fiber in his being that urged him to shout out “Fire! Fire!”
“First of all it’s a felony to yell ‘Fire!’ in a crowded movie theater, so on a bus it must be, too. Second of all everyone’s gonna look at me like I’m insane. Third they’re all gonna figure out I’m stoned and then I’m really gonna be in trouble.” The infinite loop of bad choices played over and over, speeding up until it was one continuous stream of catastrophes that froze him in place. “Maybe when I look up my head will be put back on right,” he thought. “Maybe I’ll start coming down.”
He raised his head just as the shape of the giant bus driver appeared out of the smoke. “What’s wrong with you, you crazy little motherfucker?” the driver was screaming. “You wanna fucking burn to death back here?” He grabbed Turner by the collar, jerked him over the seat, and leaped off the bus through the flames, finally throwing Turner on the grass. “What they fuck is wrong with you? What the fuck is WRONG?” the bus driver screamed.
The bus was now engulfed in flames, and Wayne and Julio were standing off to the side with the other passengers. “What was that all about?” asked Wayne. “You was just sitting on that damned bus like you was gonna burn yourself up inside it.”
Turner shook his head, then his whole body convulsed. “That’s it,” he said. “No more drugs for me.”
It’s hard to ask for money, but as with most vices the more I do it the easier it gets. I hope you’ll consider subscribing to this blog if you enjoy the content. Click here and select the “subscribe” link in the upper right-hand corner if you feel like it, and even if you don’t … thanks for reading and for commenting!
March 3, 2014 § 6 Comments
The harbormen grabbed the big hawsers and made them fast as the front of the ship opened and made a gangplank for the cars to exit onto the Bolivar Peninsula. “It’s really simple, Turner. We’re going — you and I — to find that beach weed, and if those two clowns try to mess with us, we’ll have to politely convince them not to, probably with an ass beating.”
The Chrysler jalopnik had rolled off ahead of them and they followed it at a distance. After a few miles it turned right. “See?” said Clem. “Bastards are going to steal our beach weed.”
Turner was starting to feel proprietary about it as well. “Fuckers,” he swore. “How dare they?”
The Chrysler vanished from view and they rolled along until the pavement ended. Now they were on the sand, and the car bottomed out momentarily before the wheels got traction. The sand was now packed and hard and they could see the taillights of the Chrysler down by the shore. The moon illuminated the beach and the glassy Gulf waters for as far as they could see.
“Let’s start as far away from ’em as we can,” said Clem, driving the opposite direction along the empty beach. She finally parked and they got out, each holding a big plastic trash bag. The tide was out and all along the edge were giant clumps of seaweed.
“This isn’t pot,” Turner offered. “It’s just nasty ol’ seaweed.” He reached down and picked up a handful. “Seaweed and tar.”
They walked some more, inspecting the big clumps of seaweed. After a few hundred yards they were in despair. “I can’t believe it,” said Clem. “What a colossal waste of time.”
Turner kicked another clump with his foot. “Hey, Clem,” he said. “What’s this?” He reached down and picked up a fistful of matted vegetable matter. It wasn’t seaweed. Clem came over and shined her flashlight on it.
“That’s it, Turner!” she said excitedly. “That’s it!”
They peered closely at the matted stuff, and indeed it was marijuana. Wet and nasty looking, but marijuana nonetheless. Turner dropped it into his garbage bag. “Here’s more!”
As they walked along they came upon bigger and bigger clumps of pot. The bales had broken apart in the water and washed ashore as medium – to – large sized conglomerations weighing several pounds each. Before long their trash bags were full and they returned to the car for more.
Now they were so excited they couldn’t work quickly enough. “Oh my dog, Turner,” said Clem. “Even dried out this stuff is going to weigh hundreds of pounds! Hundreds!” Soon the trunk was full and they began loading the floorboards of the back seat.
Gradually they made their way down the beach until they were only fifty yards or so from the Chrysler. One of the guys was leaning against the hood smoking a cigarette. The other guy was at the trunk taking out something long and dangerous looking.
“It’s a rifle,” said Turner. “He’s gonna kill us. He’s been waiting for us to collect all the shit and now he’s going to blow us away and they’re gonna keep it for themselves.”
With the brilliant moonshine they were easy targets for a guy with a rifle. “Hey!” Clem shouted to the guy smoking the cigarette.
“Yeah?” he said.
“What are you guys doing out here?”
“Hell, I was gonna ask you the same thing. We’re fishing.” As Clem and Turner approached, they could see that the guy at the trunk was handling a fishing pole, not a rifle.
“If you’re fishing then that means you’ve got beer,” said Clem.
“Indeed we do. Want one?”
“Does the pope shit in the woods?” Clem asked.
The guy smiled in the moonlight. “Hey, Bill. Grab a couple of beers, willya?” He turned back to them. “What are you two up to? I don’t see no fishing poles. Unless you’re fishin’ with trash bags.”
“We’re pretty much done,” Clem said. “There’s another ton of pot washed up on the beach. Our car’s full and we’re heading home.”
“Pot?” said Bill, holding out the beer. “On the beach?”
“Yeah,” said Clem. “Check it out.” She opened up her garbage bag and they peered in.
“Whew,” said the other guy, whose name was Joel. “That stinks like shit.”
“Wait ’til it dries out,” said Clem. “That’s money, that is.”
Joel reached into the bag and pulled out a fistful of the matted weeds, looking at it more closely. “I”ll be goddamned. It is weed. Hey Bill, crank on the engine.” As Bill turned the ignition, Joel opened the hood and spread the weed on top of the air filter cover, then slammed the hood. “That’ll dry ‘er out,” he said.
The four of them stood around and drank beer, with Turner surreptitiously pouring his out in dribs and drabs. He didn’t drink, and he had a feeling that someone would need to be sober before the night ended. After about thirty minutes, Joel popped the hood. “Dry as a bone!” he said, scooping up the beach weed.
Bill pulled some Zig-Zags out of the glove compartment, rolled up a fatty, and fired it up. He took the first drag, a big one. “Oh, boy,” he coughed. “That’s some nasty shit.” He handed it to Clem, who followed suit.
She gagged. “Ugh. Ugh. Gross.”
Joel was next, sucking away for all he was worth and cursing at the same time. “It’s like smoking poison,” he said. “Or smoking a skunk’s balls.”
Next the joint came to Turner. He hadn’t smoked since he was in junior high school. It had been while waiting for the bus on the way to summer school with Wayne Dokes and Julio Martin. They had all failed science class and been consigned to six weeks of purgatory at Sharpstown High School, where all the junior high fuck-ups had to go make up classes in order to get to the next grade. Turner still had nightmares about that particular day.
Joel’s hand still proffered the joint. “Ah, fuck it,” he thought, and took a drag. “What could possibly not go wrong?”
The smoke burned his lungs but even worse was the taste, some hideous mixture of seaweed and sea water and salt and tar and the general chemical filth that was the Gulf of Mexico all rolled up in one fiery, smoky taste of … skunk balls. He held in the smoke as the witches’ brew of spilled petrochemicals and tetrahydrocannabinol did their dirty work on his tired and capitulated brain.
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March 2, 2014 § 4 Comments
By the time the big Chevy nosed its way onto the Bolivar Ferry, it was well past 8:00 on a Sunday night. The ferry only had a handful of other cars on it.
“This is where I made my first mini-fortune,” Turner said.
“Yep.” He told her about selling school chocolates with his brother, but the only part she liked was the part where he extorted money from Cason in exchange for not snitching.
“You’ve got a killer’s instinct,” she said. “We just have to sharpen it up a bit.”
Off on the left loomed the big lump of Pelican Island. “See that?” said Turner.
“Yeah. What is it?”
“It’s a spoil island.”
“When they dredged the Houston Ship Channel, they had to put all the muck somewhere, so they heaped it up into an island. That’s it. Pelican Island.”
“Pretty name for something so nasty. What’s on it?”
“The most amazing thing no one’s ever seen.”
“What does that mean, Turner?”
“It’s a breeding colony for laughing gulls. Zillions of ’em, right there on the ground with their eggs and their chicks. Stinks like shit, and birds everywhere.”
“It is. But it’s really hard to get to and there aren’t any roads on it, and so it’s protected, so the birds roost and lay their eggs and raise their chicks on it. It’s kind of a sanctuary.”
The moon was rising and it shone down on Clem’s face. Her black hair was shiny in the moonlight. She turned towards him as the boat cleaved smoothly across the calm waters of the bay. “What’s with you, Turner?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, what’s with you? You’re the least curious human I’ve ever met.”
“You lost me, Clem.”
“I did? Have you noticed that you’ve never asked me anything about me? Like it’s just normal for a smarty-boots philosphizer college student who rides a bicycle in his underwear to hook up with a hooker and never ask her anything about her life. Nothing ever. Not even once.”
“What do you want me to ask?”
“That’s just it! Most people don’t need a checklist, Turner! They ask! They’re curious! But here you are, sitting on a damn boat about to go make a major drug run and maybe get thrown in prison for life and you’ve never even asked me anything about ME. That’s weird, Turner! That’s fucked up!”
Her legs were up on the dashboard and her skirt had fallen down so that the white “v” of her panties were showing at the intersection of her crossed legs. The boat’s engines churned.
“Well, Clem, I’m very curious. Just not about the things that other people are curious about. That’s all.”
“Other people, you know, if they have a girlfriend, they want to know about her vagina, and who’s been in it, and how she uses it, and how many times she’s used it, and whether she plans on using it with someone other than them, and they get all into that, you know, I call it ‘pussy politics.'”
“But I don’t care about that. It doesn’t have an odometer on it, Clem … ”
She giggled. “If it did, I have flipped it twice by the time I was eighteen.”
“Right? But it doesn’t. So what do I care how you use your vagina, or who’s been in it, or what and how and when and why you plan to use it next week? I don’t give a rat’s ass about what you do with your elbows, do I? So why should I spend my waking time worrying about the crack between your legs?”
Clem looked out the window. “So if you came home and I was screwing some guy, you wouldn’t be mad?”
“I probably would be, but that’s your business, Clem. We aren’t married.”
“What if we were married?”
“I’d be really mad, then.”
“Would you kill him?”
“Hell I am.”
“Of course I wouldn’t.”
“Because I don’t think I could kill another human being. Especially for something like fucking. Fucking’s natural.”
“You know what I’d do if I came home and you were screwing some woman?”
“I’d blow your fucking brains out. Like this.” She made a pistol with her thumb and forefinger, switched off the imaginary safety, pulled back the hammer, and pointed it at the side of Turner’s head. “If you were fucking someone in my bed, I’d squeeze this trigger until your goddamned brains came out the other side of your head.” Then she pointed the finger gun to the floorboard, let the hammer gently back, and clicked on the safety.
There was a long silence as the water hit the sides of the ferry and the diesel engines chugged away in the moonlight.
“What about the woman I was fucking? Would you shoot her, too?”
“Only if she was really cute. But otherwise, no. I can’t blame her. She’s just doing what I would have been doing.”
“You say all this like you’ve shot somebody before,” Turner said.
“Maybe I have. But I didn’t kill him too badly.”
“What’s that supposed to mean? You didn’t kill him ‘too badly’?”
Clem laughed, then frowned. “I shot him good enough that he stopped doing what he was doing.”
“What was he doing?”
“What he wasn’t supposed to. Haven’t seen him since and don’t miss the bastard one whit and hope he never shows his ugly face around my house again. You better hope not, either. He’d shoot your narrow ass just for living.”
“You’re crazy, Clem.”
“I’m crazy? You’re the crazy one, Turner. Normal men kill other people for fucking their women. But you, you’re just kind of like ‘Oh, well,’ like she’s making some guy a cup of coffee. Are all philosophizers like you?”
“I’m not a ‘philosphizer,’ whatever that is.”
“Sure you are!” She dropped her voice an octave and scrunched her face up in a mock serious expression. “What is the meaning of justice? How do we know what we know?” She started giggling. “All your philosophizing crap is so dumb. I tried to read one of your books while you were at school and it’s the stupidest crap ever. It doesn’t even make any sense, except the part about the old man trying to fuck the young boys. Why do you care about that shit? Why don’t you just get a business degree and learn how to make money like everyone else? Who gives a shit about ‘What is justice?'”
Turner looked at her. “You know why I’m not curious about you?”
“Why?” She was so eager that her eyes seemed to flicker with electricity.
“Because the easiest way to kill what I feel about you is to examine it.”
The silence filled the car. They sat there.
After a while Clem spoke. “You see these other cars on the ferry?”
“What about them?”
“Any of them look funny to you?”
Turner surveyed the handful of vehicles. “No.”
“Why don’t you try to tell me what each one of them is here for?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“See that pickup? Guy and his wife and two kids. They’ve been on the island for the day and are headed home, somewhere on the mainland. The big Buick with the two old people? What are they doing?”
“I don’t know. Same thing?”
“Probably. What about the two Mexicans in the Pinto?”
“Working on the island? Going home after a day’s work?”
“Yes, I’d say so. What about that one?” She nodded over towards a rusted out Chrysler 300. “What are they here for?”
Turner looked. The car was really beat-up, with a huge dent in front chrome fender. The driver had a scraggly beard and was wearing an Astros ballcap. The passenger was slouched low, wearing sunglasses, but evidently not asleep. “I don’t know. They aren’t fishermen, that’s for sure.”
“No, Turner, they aren’t.”
Clem laughed. “Yes, probably birdwatchers finishing up a day over on Pelican Island.”
“Who are they, then?”
“I’d say they’re drug dealers.”
“Yes, like us. Which means … ?”
“You think they’re going the same place we are?”
The ferry’s engines strained as they reversed the screws, slowing the boat as the captain guided it perfectly into the ferry landing.
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February 20, 2014 § 12 Comments
A moment after Turner had gotten into the grim, murderous rhythm of the front group, the road went up slightly. They were ending the first 17-mile lap, which terminated on a slight uphill, perhaps a quarter-mile long, with a very short, not too steep, hundred-yard rise at the finish line.
The rain continued to dump, and as they churned along, about halfway up the modest incline, Turner saw the most amazing thing happen. The group rode away. He was pushing every bit as hard as he had been, even harder, until finally he was smashing the pedals with every ounce of strength he could muster, but no matter. The heaving, shifting, swirling mass of riders went faster and the gap between him and them, first only a couple of bike lengths, soon became car lengths, then truck lengths, then they crested the start-finish and were gone.
Fortunately, the freezing rain was still there, and when he passed the start-finish he felt all hope and energy vanish, replaced instantaneously by a cold so profound that it seemed to go down into his deepest entrails. A handful of bedraggled spectators shouted listless lies like “They’re not too far off!” and “You can catch them!” and other hopeless platitudes that no one believed, and these falsehoods rang in his ears along with the hiss and slosh of the tires in the muck and the pounding rain on his hairnet and his head and his face and his bare arms.
After a mile or so he heard a big swooshing sound. He looked back and saw a clump of about ten riders overtaking him at breakneck speed. It was the junior field. They pounded by, covering him with spray, which was more insulting than anything else since was already saturated and it was still pouring. A minute or so later a lone junior came by. He was slender and hunched over a light blue Pinarello, and covered though it was in crud Turner envied the gorgeous Italian frame and the Campy Super Record components, a fancier, nicer, slicker rig for a mere kid than he, a grown man, could even think of affording.
Without hesitating, Turner jumped on the junior’s wheel, happy to get some respite from what was going from a miserable, freezing slog to a lonely, miserable, freezing slog.
The junior didn’t say anything, but a moment later a pickup pulled up next to them. It was the kid’s father, and he was livid. “Get the off of his wheel!” he shouted. “You’re in a different race!”
“What do you care?” Turner snarled back. “We’re both dropped and out of contention. Lighten up.”
The father became apoplectic. “Get off of his wheel you bastard or I’ll report you to the chief ref, you’re a goddam cheater, don’t you have any self respect, wheelsucking on a 16-year-old?”
“Oh, shut up,” Turner said, and went back to the business of sitting on the kids’ wheel.
In a flash the guy in the pickup swerved over, deliberately trying to knock Turner down. Freaked out, he leaned and hit his rear brake, sending his bike off onto the shoulder and then into the ditch. “You crazy motherfucker!” Turner screamed, dismounting and dragging his bike back onto the road. Flipping off the driver in disbelief, he hopped back in the saddle as the little drama reached its denouement: The junior grabbed onto the side of the pickup and his dad towed him out of sight, presumably close enough to the front group so that he could get back in with the lead bunch.
He would have shaken he was so angry if he hadn’t already been shaking from the cold. The next car to pull up next to him was Clem’s green Impala. It took him a moment to recognize her and the car, and at first he glared and tensed, ready for some other crazyfuck to try and kill him. “Turner!” she said. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I mean no,” he said.
“Want to get in the car?”
He shook his head.
She looked at him for a moment, covered in shit, hopelessly off the back, and nowhere near the end of the race. She could see the welts and the decades old scars there on his face and in his eyes, and it fascinated her, the way the scab was partially torn away and bleeding, and with her eyes she peeled it back, feeling him flinch as she did so, watching the open wound and wondering who had made it, and why, and marveling how much it looked like hers, and clinically noting how stoically he bore it, accepting it as the cost of doing the business of life. “Turner!” she said again, picking at the scab.
“What?” He was angry, but through his rage he saw her leaning over towards the open passenger window, her nipples pressing against her t-shirt like .38-caliber slugs.
“Pull over for a second,” she said.
“I don’t want to fucking pull over!”
“I didn’t ask you if you wanted to pull over. Pull over, goddammit.”
He did. She jumped out of the car and handed him the wool Santini jacket. He put it on but his hands were too frozen to fasten it, so she zipped it for him. She’d never seen a bike race before, but as he pushed off with one foot she instinctively put both hands on his butt and, running behind him, gave him a mighty push. In those few short seconds she had gotten soaked. He reached down and tightened his toe straps and disappeared into the deluge.
She flipped the car and drove back to the high school.
In what was an infinity for him but less than an hour for her, Turner crossed the finish line, stopping to let Clem unzip his jacket so the chief ref could see his number. The chief ref shook his head and scribbled something on his clipboard.
As he stumbled to the car he saw one of the officials giving medals to the juniors, who had finished long ago. The kid on the Pinarello had gotten third. “Thanks, Dad,” Turner muttered.
Inside the car Clem turned the heater on high. “Your lips are purple,” she said.
He convulsed for a few minutes, stripping off the wet clothing until he was naked as she toweled him off. Then it began to hit him. He screamed.
February 19, 2014 § 20 Comments
Clem and Turner sat in the 1972 green Chevy Impala that she had “borrowed” from a “friend.”
“I’m not even gonna ask where you stole this car from,” he said.
“Good!” she cheerily replied. “And I won’t ask if you’d rather get the fuck out and pedal your bike to this goddamned race.” The rain was lashing the windshield without mercy and the outside temp was just a notch above freezing.
Clem was excited, sexually. He knew this because her nipples were hard even though it was warm in the car and because her eyes gleamed and she was laughing at everything and she kept licking her lips, which were wet. She was about to see her conquering hero go out and conquer, collect some gory scalps trimmed off the bleeding skulls of his victims, hoist some heads on a pike, and string a leather thong with the ears of the dead. “I think that’s it,” Turner said, pointing to the squat concrete structure of Buda-Hays High School.
“Shitcakes,” said Clem. “Where are we gonna park?”
Turner had assured her that there would be a handful of fifteen to twenty idiots, at the very most, in his first ever Cat 4 road race, the season-opener “La Primavera.” Why had he told her that? Because it sounded better than “I have no idea,” and it sounded like a good number, three or four times the number of idiots whom he’d vanquished at the Bloor Road time trial two weeks earlier. In fact the high school parking lot was full and cars lined the roadway for several hundred yards on either side of the school. Bikes were everywhere and the roadside ditch was almost overflowing from the torrential downpour.
Turner signed in, paid his fee, and went back to the car. Clem started pinning on his number, stabbing him through the lycra with each safety pin. “Ouch! Can you be a little more careful?”
She laughed. “No,” and stabbed him again.
Five minutes before his race started, Turner scurried out to the starting line. The rain was pouring down in giant bursts of freezing vomitus. Everyone was soaked to the skin and frozen, and the race hadn’t even begun. An official pointed to Turner. “Hey, you in the blue jacket!”
“Me?” Turner said.
“Yeah, you! You can’t ride with that jacket on! It covers up your number!”
“No! Take it off or get out of the race!”
Turner took off his wool Santini jacket and handed it to Clem, who was standing near the starting line. He felt his body temperature plunge further. Now the only thing between him and the elements was a short-sleeved lycra jersey. He began shuddering uncontrollably.
The chief referee shouted at them from under an umbrella. “This is the Cat 4 race, gentlemen. 34 miles, two loops of 17 miles each. Centerline rule strictly enforced. Your field is full, 75 riders. The juniors will be leaving five minutes after you. If you get passed, don’t jump in.”
Turner snickered to himself. “Get passed by the juniors … right.”
The ref continued. “Ride safe, guys!” Then he blew his whistle and the injuries and accidents began.
Racers jammed their feet into the toe clips and reached down to tighten the straps, but since the Cat 4 racers were the lowest and least skilled, many wobbled and bumped into their neighbors, causing several mini-pileups. “You fucking fucker!” and “Fucking watch it motherfucker!” and other variants of “What the fuck are you doing you fucking fucker?” were bandied about liberally. Turner weaved through the mayhem as the galloping peloton got up to speed.
They swooped around the right hander that took them towards Driftwood, each frozen and soaked idiot only a few lousy inches away from the frozen and soaked idiot in front of him, going so hard and filled with so much adrenaline that their collective hearts were about to jump out of their chests. Just as Turner started to catch his breath and settle into the ragingly crazy speed, his face filled with spray and muck from the wheels in front of him, the inside of his mouth and his tongue coated with filth and mud, his spectacles covered with a gooey paste of road grime and water, his terror at crashing so intense that he thought he could taste the kidneys he was partially coughing up, just then an idiot from the San Antonio Bicycle Racing Club a few wheels ahead of him touched the rear wheel of another idiot from another team, and the SABRC idiot went sideways and down, heavily, on his side. The downed rider’s skull, cleverly protected by a few thin strips of soft leather, smacked with the thud of a giant cracking egg against the asphalt as riders behind swerved, ran into him, jumped over him, and spun out, crashing out even more riders.
The noise alone was epic enough to have caused migraines and nightmares for a lifetime, but accompanied as it was by the screams and moans and the grinding of steel and the smashing sounds of bodies and tarmac and exploding tires and the skidding and cursing all blended together to make a perfect little horror story just for Turner.
He was going full bore and he knew his wet brakes weren’t going to work and he wished he’d learned to bunny hop when he was in grade school but since he hadn’t he leaned back and sort of threw the bike forward just as the SABRC guy’s arm flopped out in front of him. Turner closed his eyes and gritted his teeth as his bike ran over the rider’s elbow, which made a grinding bone-snapping sound, but Turner miraculously stayed upright which was more than the guy behind him could say because his front tire hit the SABRC guy’s skull squarely in the back of the cranium, flipping him over the bars and onto his face, where his front six teeth danced across the asphalt in a multidirectional tango followed by a spurting fountain of blood and an opera of pain and other indicia of misery that Turner never knew about because he was pedaling for all he was worth to catch back up to the peloton.
Half the field was gone and they were less than five miles into the race and Turner had survived. Now the speed really ramped up and he hunkered down over his handlebars with a kind of grim satisfaction. It hurt like hell, but he’d made it. He would outlast all of these sorry fuckers and then, with a couple of miles to go he’d rage away from the remaining survivors so fast and so quick that they’d never even know what hit them. This wasn’t war, but there was danger and blood and violence and fear and anger and pain and injury and the risk of death and those who had made it this far were still going strong and those who hadn’t were being trundled back to Austin in a fucking ambulance.
It wasn’t war, but it was damn sure similar to love.
February 18, 2014 § 20 Comments
“It’s a what?” Clem asked as Turner sat on the edge of the bed, pulling the thick wool tights up over his legs.
“A time trial.”
“What the fuck is that and why the fuck is it so early and are you out of your fucking mind it’s 30 degrees outside.”
He stood up and pulled the suspenders over his shoulders, then put on his team jersey. His new team jersey. His Vigorelli lycra team jersey. It was purple.
“It’s a timed race, Clem. The riders go off at one minute intervals and the guy with the fastest time wins.”
“While you’re ‘going off’ you know where I’m going? Back to fuckin’ bed.” She rolled over and pulled the blankets under her chin. “Have fun.”
The cold bit through his wool Santini jacket and whistled through his long-fingered gloves. He didn’t mind, because people generally don’t mind physical discomfort when they’re scared out of their minds, and Turner was scared out of his. He had that “going to the principal’s office for a whipping” or “going into the math test for a flunking” or “walking home from the stamp-and-coin shop for an ass beating” feeling, except this was something he’d signed up for.
He had ridden through the winter with White Shoes, and when he finally got up the courage to ask Stijn if he thought he should race, Stijn had looked at him quizzically and said, “What the fuck are you riding your bike all the time with a bunch of bike racers for if you’re not gonna race?”
So he’d joined a club, gotten a license, and signed up for his first race, the Bloor Road to Blue Bluff Time Trial.
Crazy Max, the weatherbeaten, dope-addled mechanic at the bike shop who also organized the club’s annual race, had explained the race to him like this. “What the hell is there to explain? It’s a fuggin’ time trial.”
Turner looked stupidly at the floor. “Yeah,” he said. “But what is it, actually?”
Crazy Max ignored the question, as if Turner had said “What is a penis?” or “What is a bicycle?”
The tall, gangly mechanic known as Slither looked over from the truing stand. “You race against the clock, man. Balls out. Fastest time wins.”
“Oh,” nodded Turner. “So, where is it?”
Crazy Max looked up. “It’s in between Austin and Manor, just off FM 979. Bring your license and five bucks. Race starts at 8:00 AM sharp, riders go off every sixty seconds. It’s gonna be a full fuggin’ field. First race of the year, solid prize list, should sell out. Don’t be late.”
“How long is the race?”
“Four miles, about.”
“Can I ride my bike there? I don’t have a car.”
Crazy Max snorted. “Fugg yes. Everyone will prob’ly ride there except the organizers. That’s me.”
Turner had found Bloor Road on the map and was now pedaling as hard as he could to keep from freezing to death and to avoid missing the start. It took close to an hour, and his hands and feet were completely numb. Before long he saw Crazy Max’s old schrottwagen on the side of the road. “That must be the start.”
There were four or five other cars, but no bikes. Crazy Max was sitting in his car with the windows rolled up, heater on full blast. He cracked the window. “Don’t tell me you rode your fuggin’ bike here? Are you fuggin’ nuts?”
“You said everyone would … ” Turner faltered.
“Yeah, maybe I should have added ‘Unless it’s fuggin’ five degrees outside, or there’s a hurricane, or an earthquake, or the Germans bomb Austin. Jeez.” Crazy Max stuck a sign up sheet out from the cracked window. “Put your name on there and gimme the five bucks.” He rolled the window back up.
Stammering, Turner did as he was told, then tapped on the window. “Where are all the other racers?” he asked, pushing the sign-up sheet and the five-dollar-bill back through the slot.
Crazy Max exhaled a cloud of pot smoke. “Fugg if I know. Home in bed fuggin’ their mothers, prob’ly.”
At 8:00 sharp Crazy Max and the four other riders got out of their vehicles. One of them was Slither, who was also stoned. The other was a sixteen-year-old kid, Mikey Buttress, who they all called “Butthead.” The two others were bundled up like Arctic explorers, and looked to be in their late 20’s.
Turner looked at the riders’ bikes, all of which had knobby tires and funny looking cantilever brakes instead of the standard caliper-type brakes. Turner edged up to Mikey. “Hey,” he said. Mikey nodded back, the first friendly face of the day. “What’s with all the knobby tires?”
“Didn’t Crazy Max tell you this was all over unpaved roads? There’s a couple hundred yards of pavement, but only at the beginning. The first two miles after that are all uphill on pretty gnarly dirt, and the last half is flat, but it’s mostly unpaved too, except for the chugholes.” Mikey eyed Turner’s bike. “Good luck.”
One of the two club volunteers who had apparently ridden over with Crazy Max and agreed to volunteer in exchange for free dope held each rider, then released him at the designated time. Turner went last, and when the holder let him go he shot down the road as if it were a 200-meter sprint.
His bike launched off the crumbled lip of pavement and the tires sort of somehow gripped the loose dirt as pieces of gravel shot off to the side and the rim slammed with raging violence against big slags of rock that Turner didn’t see or couldn’t avoid. Partway up the incline his lungs began to sear, then his legs began to burn, and his bike kept slipping and sliding and bumping and pounding over rocks until he thought his teeth would rattle out of their sockets.
By the top of the climb Turner had overtaken the two polar explorers, and shortly before the finish he overhauled Crazy Max, who got off his bike, reached into his jersey pocket and begin furiously sucking on a joint. Everyone else huddled around the dope except for Turner and Mikey. The timing volunteer did some calculations and declared Turner the winner.
“Shit, man,” he said. “You just won your first bicycle race.”
“Really?” Turner said. It had hurt worse than anything in his life.
“Yeah, man. You killed it.”
Turner felt a wave of exultation roll over him. He’d done it. He wasn’t just a bike racer he was a winner. He couldn’t believe it. The other volunteer had driven up in Crazy Max’s car. “Good job,” Crazy Max said, hurriedly loading his bike into the trunk.
“Thanks,” said Turner. “Where’s my prize for first place?”
“Oh, yeah,” said Crazy Max. “I almost forgot.” He opened the door of the car and rummaged around on the floor, finally pulling out a paper grocery sack. “This is some special shit. It’s gonna be worth big money some day.” Out of the bag he withdrew a brand new Laverne & Shirley board game, still shrink-wrapped in plastic.
“What the hell is this?” asked Turner.
“It’s your prize. Good job out there today.” The other riders laughed, taking additional turns on the joint.
“Don’t spend it all in one place,” one said.
“Welcome to bike racing, sonny,” said Slither. “At least it’s new.”
Turner stuck the board game between his jacket and his back and rode home, livid at having been lied to, livid at having ridden to the race in the cold like an idiot, livid at the lameness of bike racing, and most of all livid at his stupid prize. The temperature had continued to drop, and by the time he arrived he was frozen to the core. He stumbled into the toasty apartment. Clem was watching TV and sipping hot coffee. She glanced up. “How’d you do?”
Her eyes got big. “Really? Your first race?”
“Oh, Turner, that’s so cool! Who’d you beat?”
“Four old stoners and a kid who doesn’t have hair on his balls yet.”
She laughed. “What did you win?”
He pulled out the Laverne & Shirley board game. Clem’s laughter turned hysterical. Turner started laughing too. “I always hated that fucking TV show,” he said.
“Me, too! Stupid fucking miserable little cunts masquerading as happy people.”
“But you know what?”
“If today was any indication, I’m going to win a whole shit-ton of bike races.”
Clem raised an eyebrow. “Oh, goodie. Can I come watch next time?”