| One of the reasons I stopped publishing The
Glovebox Chronicles last year was the dirth of decent stories. I've gotten
a few submissions, but I am not ready to tackle another print zine.
Xerography Debt and Leeking Ink keep me far too busy. Write and
let me know what you think of the idea. If you have a story you would like to
tell, contact me at email@example.com
The Eye of the Storm
by Ron Gibson, Jr.
We all had our reasons to be there. I was the drunk and disorderly. Phil was the public vandalism. Greg was the shoplifter. Antonio was the grand theft auto. Some high school kids were even there for money, because they didnt want to flip burgers, sweat over video store databases, or to spite their parents. A real shitty reason to join a roadside clean up crew, but they were still kids; they were allowed leeway. If they wanted to walk along a highway with shady citizens, like me, trying to burn their community service hours by picking beer cans and trash out of the grassy embankments for less than minimum wage, more power to them. They must have been using high school logic: Pick shop classes because they are a no-brainer. And, believe me, this roadside shit was as no-brainer as it got.
Our "boss" was some city maintenance loser with a misplaced ego. Instead of mowing city baseball fields, tending downtown beautification projects, or making sure gutters were clear before the fall rains, he preferred to oversee us laboring in the heat in those goddamn orange Day-Glo vests and hard hats. He was something straight out of Cool Hand Luke; he thought he was The Man With No Eyes. He wore Ponch and Jon silver sunglasses and wanted us to call him "The Snake Man." Though the high school kids may have fallen for it, the rest of us just read his nametag and called him Gunter.
The first thing Gunter did was try to project his alto voice as a baritone and sit us down to preach the dos and donts of roadside clean up. The state had made it manditory since the highly publicized incident from the year before. Reports were that some kid on the roadside crew became pissed after a driver pegged him with a wadded up cigarrette pack, so the kid flipped them off. The driver pulled over with a screech, and supposedly came out firing on everybody like Rambo. At least that was the way Gunter told it; he made it sound like he was there on the front line with Audie Murphy and John Wayne. Though when someone asked if he had been there, he reluctantly admitted no, but quickly added that he knew a guy that knew a guy that had been. When Gunter realized that most of us were snickering at his pathetic attempt at damage control, he threw in a VHS tape and stormed out of the room.
We would regret this, because what followed after the troubadour intro music, straight out of a bad 1970s sex education film, was an hour and a half of hell. The tape was an instructional video featuring a cartoon character named Sammy the Safety Squirrel. Sammy was a dimwit that acted like the crankheads in my apartment complex when they were coming off their three-day highs. He would stagger around and always do everything wrong. Then the overly masculine narrators voice would cut in, like divine intervention, and correct his mistake. Sammy would nod at the narrators advice, display his constipated look of enlightenment, and perform the task correctly this time around. The whole thing was fucking degrading. The film must have been originally aired for four-year-olds and retards on Nickelodeon. But the final insult wasnt delivered until Sammy walked out, head-on, into oncoming traffic. When Sammy picked his razor-thin, tenderized, wheel-tread carcass off the ground to await the narrators ultimate wisdom, I said fuck it, and walked outside for a smoke.
Outside the city maintenance garage, now surrogate classroom, the sun was riding high overhead. I pulled out my hard pack of Marlboro Reds and began my ritual of tamping the hell out of it, before actually pulling out a fag and lighting up. I took a long drag and exhaled, smooth and steady. Gunter was nowhere in sight. Only the lunchtime commute droned on in the distance. I thought, even when my world seemed to stop, the real world never did. I knew somewhere barely underaged girls were naively strutting their wares along lakeshores. UPS workers were receiving blowjobs from neglected housewives addicted to QVC. Teenagers were getting stoned, watching every volume of Faces of Death on a dare, topping off their bad karma. Retirees were on their daily walks, holding up mall window traffic, cursing out the world under their breath. Somewhere deviants were toeing the boundary lines of imagination; martyrs were being sacrificed with the distant stroke of a pen. Unscripted dramas were being played out, directions were being walked, lives were being lived. And here I was, Mr. Drunk and Disorderly, stamping out my smoke on a no parking sign, jonesing for another drink, another brush with the law, another chance to prove my worth.
I was about to light up, again, when I heard a voice from my right. It was coming from behind a sickly-looking pine growing out of gravel. When I rounded the corner, still hidden by flimsy limbs, Gunter was sitting in his city maintenance truck, half-in and half-out, door wide open, jawing with somebody on the CB. He looked excited (a little too excited to tell you the truth). His face was flush, he had a crazy-looking smile, and, Im guessing, a hard-on to go along with it all. He was in the middle of a nervous fit of laughter, giddy as a horny kid pondering the mysteries lingering inside a girls pants, when I moved closer, scuffing my shoes across gravel. Gunter suddenly looked up and saw me walking towards the truck; his laughter and expression immediately dropped. He swung his leg inside the truck, slammed the door shut, and snapped, "What are you doing out here?"
"Just mindin my bidness, boss man. Just mindin my bidness," I said, with a smirk, shuffling past his open, drivers side window, and hopping into the back of the truck, where the rest of the crew would be crammed into soon enough.
I leaned into the flatbed wall and kicked back, looking in on Gunter through the rear cab window. It was like he was a student in the middle of a test, with a teacher hovering over his shoulder; he was frozenhis eyes locked forward and hands strangling the steering wheel. I thought about lighting up, but decided the tamping might disrupt whatever freakish phenomenon I was witnessing. It isnt everyday you see a man turn to rigamortis before your eyes.
Suddenly, a crackle and blister of static erupted from the CB, and all at once, his body flinched, as if in pain. His shoulders balled up so tight, it looked like he had no neck.
A voice broke in, "Hey, you still out there, Snake Man? Chico here wants to know how old that little piece of muff is, from your new crew, that you pulled the boa out on."
You could hear Chico cracking up in the background.
"Hey, you giving it to her right now?"
Gunter half-turned and shot a quick, panicked look at me, then scrambled for the mic and muttered, "Gotta go."
But, before he could shut down the CB all together, the voice broke back in, "Be sure it isnt the belly button this time."
The voice and Chico roared with laughter, until the signal was cut off.
Gunter and I were left in silence. I could have said something. I could have taken over where the voice and Chico left off, capping on him with an arsenal of jokes and quips collected from years of being the youngest in a neighborhood of teenage smartasses, but what was the point? He was too easy a target. To peg him in the face with a dodgeball would have been inhumane. His co-workers, the majority of our crew, and probably a pretty good cross section of people already thought he was a loser. You almost had to feel sorry for the guy. I could have assured him that when it came to pussy, all men were pathetic. That, in the past, even I lied about getting a piece a time or two. I could have done that. I could have been Mr. Nice Guy. But lets get real. This was Gunterinflated superego, attitude, and all.
I opted to exaggeratedly tamp my pack of smokes, daring Gunter to say something, then fired up. He didnt protest; he slipped back into a deep freeze, as had the lunchtime commuteits ragged breathing died down to barely a whisper. I took a long drag and blew my smoke up at a jet searing across the sky, with a contrail of cheap crank behind its tail. While, somewhere in the distance, a chorus of sirens broke out of the silence, fast approaching.
* * * * *
Once we were out there getting blown sideways by speeding semis and receiving a hail of horn blasts and finger salutes, the crew moved like an assembly line of Cold War communists. There was no point to be in a rush. Whether you bagged fifty pounds of trash or fifteen ounces, there was no reward awaiting anyone. The only reward was an inflamed sacroiliac, which after hours of being hunched over, like a pack of Igors, came as no surprise. I would have to stop every so often, stretch my back, producing a ripple of cracks, and attempt to wipe the beer sweat from my brow, before dripping into my eyes, with my already sweaty forearm. My body felt like it had been sent down a conveyor belt, pummeled by a gang of assholes swinging around socks loaded with rolls of nickels. I started making promises to myself that I would stop drinking and smoking; that I would get back into shape; that I would cleanse my soul and repent for being a lowdown bastard, and whatever other vow of self-improvement managed to slip between my litany of curses. But, of course, I never followed through with any of them. They were like those meaningless, little prayers to God, during the middle of the night, after you feel your heart suddenly flutter offbeat. It takes the silence of night to finally awaken your senses and make you realize your own mortality. It scares you into promising that you will quit swearing; that you will quit masturbating; that you will walk barefoot and preach the gospels, if only you can survive the night. They are empty promises. You know damn well, the next day, you will be cranking up death metal, flipping crucifixes upside down, and taking the Lords name in vain every goddamn fucking chance you got. But once the comfort of day arrives, with its first drink or toke or snort or huff, all bets are off.
So I held the oddsmakers at bay. Instead of waiting until the end of the day, I started medicating on the job. I would slip behind a cluster of goldenrod, on piss break, and fire up some ganja. The day was so enjoyable, the next day I brought along half a dozen Vicodin, given to me by my neighbor, Sanchez. That day was so great, the next day I scored some crank off a homeless-looking Gen Xer, reading Pynchon, outside of the library. That day was so amazing, I knew I had to see the Doc and get some of his special meth, nicknamed Cherry Bomb (legend has it, either a virgin blew herself up while on it, or because its final mixing component was cherry Jello gelatintake your pick). That day was so unbelievable, who couldnt help but notice me running sprints like Carl Lewis and taking more piss breaks than a diabetic that had downed two cases of Coca Cola?
Greg was the first one to touch me up for a taste; he was about as indiscrete as a hard-on in a Speedo. Antonio caught sight of the exchange and soon hit me up, as well. Shortly followed by Phil, the bloodshot Thai, the rave kid with piercings all over his face, and the Bobsie Twinsa pair of peroxide rocker chicks, whose mountains of hair flattened to an avalanche of mullets under their hard hats. Before I knew it, the assembly line of Cold War communists turned into a bread line riot. I felt like Custer surrounded by Crazy Horse, except instead of Custer, I was Pablo Escobar.
Gunter was on the hood of his maintenance truck, attempting to tan his chalk complexion, when he finally noticed the misfit huddle. He propped himself up on his elbow, flipped up his silver sunglasses, and barked out orders that nobody could make out over the gust of commute. When the unlawful assembly failed to break up, Gunter hopped off the truck, cleared the freeway railing, darted down the grassy hillside, and peeled back bodies, until he reached methe eye of the storm.
"What in the holy hell is going on here?"
"Oh, hey, Snake Man."
The sarcastic tone made him slightly turn his head away, like a dog that has been broken and cant look you straight in the eye. Even if he did look me in the eye, he would have probably gotten dizzy watching my pupils bouncing around like Atari Pong on hyperspeed.
"Come on. Break it up. Everybody get back to work, pronto."
The crew reluctantly unraveled, some murmurring obscenities, and returned to their places in line.
Before Gunter resumed his midday tanning session, I said to his pale, freckled back, "Sorry about that, Gunter. Ive learned my lesson. Never yell Jesus Christ in a crowd, you might be mistaken for the Second Coming."
* * * * *
"Which one would you fuck?" asked Antonio, referring to the Bobsie Twins.
"I dont know. Which one is which?" inquired Greg.
"Good question," said Antonio.
"They both look like bad versions of TJ Hooker," said Phil.
"Bad versions of hookers, too," I added, even though I knew any one of us would fuck them if given the chance.
Just that evening, as work let out, I asked the Twins if they wanted to join us for a beer or two. They must have read into the true meaning of the invitation: "Lets get you two drunk and take turns banging both of you." They laughed; their cigarette tips glowing in the deepening dusk, while teasing their hair back to its former heights, and said that some local rock band, with typical religious imagery in its name, was playing The Tractor, and they couldnt make it.
So we sat on the curb, outside of the mini-mart, watching people come and go, taking pulls off twenty-two ouncers of Natural Ice. The beer tasted like raw sewage mixed with seltzer water; but it was cheap and sported a 5.9% alcohol content. Khalid, the mini-mart owner, said he couldnt get the crap to move off the shelves, so he held a sale. At seventy-eight cents apiece, it still didnt move. Only bums and lowlifes, like us, were caught dead drinking it.
Phil was mindlessly peeling the label off his bottle, when he said, "Do any of you even know their names?"
"They never said," answered Greg.
"Probably tattooed above each others cunts, so they know whos licking who," said Antonio, as he chucked a pebble at the balding tire of a parked Jetta.
"They also never said what they did to score community service," added Greg, who was flipping his empty bottle into the air and catching it before it shattered on the oil-stained pavement.
"Had to be solicitation," said Phil.
"Illegal use of the hands in a no hard-on zone," I guessed, watching the sideways glance of a fortyish woman in sweat pants, who overheard me as she returned to her SUV at the gas pump.
"No way. Substance abusetoo much peroxide," said Antonio.
"I wonder if their pubes are dyed, too," mused Greg.
"You would," said Phil.
"And you wouldnt?" I said.
"No, I have class. Id wonder if they spit or swallowed," said Phil.
"Chivalry is alive in America," I declared.
"Definitely swallow," interjected Greg.
"I know," said Antonio. "Yesterday, they said they did."
And they did say, with considerable detail, at that. Im not sure how the subject came up, but once it did, it was tag team confession hour. Greg, Antonio, Phil, and I fell back, circling the Twins like a wagon train of priests, trying to act unaffected by their words. I knew I was too old for this shit. This was something teenagers did when parents went away for the evening; this was what girls with no self-esteem said to guys as a last hope attractant, because they had been conditioned to believe male acceptance was not only a goal, but a priority. I knew I was no better than Gunter lying to his co-workers about getting pussy. Worse, in fact, because I had been there and done that. And even though I knew all that, I still listened intently. For the rest of the week, I would masturbate to what they said. I would imagine impossible bodily contortions, infinite stamina, and copious amounts of come. And, in the end, I knew that the Twins got off on the fact.
"What a couple of cockteases," I concluded.
Phil and Antonio grunted acknowledgment, and Greg said, distantly, "Amen, brotha."
I looked up, past the flickering lights of the filling port, into the dark silhouettes of trees standing guard against the horizon, along the eastern hillside. The purpling dusk had bruised into fullfledged night. We sat in the shadow of death of our industrial valley, directionless. We knew of no other way to be. We were the stars in the sky, lost behind light pollution; we would never find our way out.
"Lets get out of here," said Antonio.
"Before someone slits their wrists," I added
Greg stopped playing catch with his bottle, hopped up off the curb, and hucked it into the dirt lot, next door, filled with empty, semi-truck trailers. It barely made a sound.
"Hey, that reminds me," said Phil. "I got hold of a bootleg Dana Plato death tape."
"Youre shitting me. Kimberly Drummond?" asked Greg.
"Shit you not. The one and only," said Phil.
"Man, I wanted to fuck her," I said.
"We all did," Antonio assured me. "Lets go watch it."
"Nothing else to do, anyway," said Greg.
With that, we walked away from one death to the next, past a black woman yelling into a pay phone, guided only by streetlight constellations and the mournful cries of a freight train. It sounded as if it were saying, Go, go, go.
* * * * *
From an overpass, during lunch break, I watched grease-covered workers and kids line the riverbanks, balancing dangerously on unstable boulders and dust-slick, graveled slopes, trying their luck. But no luck was actually involved. Since the state cut back funds for game wardens, everyone knew this region was never regulated anymore. Armed with sturdy rods and heavy pound test line, they cast out bare, treble hooks (preferably, Gamagatsu brand. Said, by locals, to be the sharpest hooks in the world) and dragged the razor-sharp barbs through the swirling currents, hoping to snag an eye, a silver side, a tail, or any part of a salmon. Once foul-hooked, the salmon fought like a supercharged V-8; the rod would bend double and reel would sing, as line ripped out in bursts. They were called thumb-burners, because in the days before modern equipment, anglers had to press their thumb against the line spool as a drag. With each defiant run the salmon made, their thumbs would literally smoke from the friction of line against skin. The sign of a hardcore fisherman used to be someone with a thumb calloused thick as R-30 insulation.
But the days of real battles had ended. Now, with thumb-free, twist-controlled, multi-disc-dragged level winds, sporting stainless steel pinion gears and two to one gear ratios, it wasnt a matter of if, but when you brought the fish in.
I took a bite of a slipshod ham and cheese, leaning over the overpass railing, watching a swarm of black shadows resting in a pool just downstream of the anglers dogleg, wash-out point, when a reddish-bronze side flashed out of the murk with a savage splash. A bearded man, wearing a dingy, Freightliner ball cap, let out a whoop; his rod bent like a reed in the face of a hurricane. The line zigzagged and shook, then shot upstream in a panic. Though the salmon fought doggedly, it was playing right into the anglers hands. Following its homing instinct, it continued upstream and incidentally swam right in front of the feet of the bearded mans buddy, who was balanced between two rocks, hovering over the water, sporting a handheld gaff. With the swift efficiency of movement of a kung fu master, the bearded mans buddys arm dipped and scooped hard, as the gaff sank into the salmon below the gill plate, then leaned back, hoisting the catch into the air. It was a fifteen pounder, at least. With blood dripping down its side, its tail waved at air, still attempting to make the trek back to its origin, until the bearded man clocked it in the head with a fist-sized rock. The bearded mans buddy then pulled out his jackknife and slit the salmons belly open. He extracted the orange, jewel-like skeins, put them into a Ziplock bag filled with Borax (this was done to cure and preserve the salmon eggs, to save as bait for the winter-run steelhead), and then chucked the dissected salmon back into the river. Four years in the ocean, thousands of miles swam, dodging predatorsranging from gigantic, hundred-mile-netted fishing traulers to sea lions to hydraulic power dam turbinesstarving itself, going through an unbelievable physical metamorphisis, and then just twelve miles away from its spawning grounds, this is its homecoming: floating back down the river current it had swam so hard against, with its guts hanging out. Even dishonored samurai had it better than this.
Just another death in the valley, I thought. Just more proof that everything was futile; that the harder you try, the quicker you go. Sometimes it felt like there was so much dying that lifes only aim was to race to the finish line.
A quick rinse of the hands, erasing the blood of the sacrificed, and the men already had their lines back in the water. The whole scene reminded me of a line in the Shakespeare play, Richard III, that I was forced to read in high school: "So far in blood that sin will pluck on sin: Tear-falling pity dwell not in this eye."
Nor in this eye, I thought, as I tossed the uneaten portion of my ham and cheese sandwich off the overpass, put my hard hat on, and fell back into line. We looked like eggs fallen from the skein, glowing orange, caught in the current, waiting for the mouths of hungry jacks.
* * * * *
Out of the monotony of work and being sober, we created a game called Holy Shit. Named for the most common phrase exclaimed after looking at something unbelievable, its aim was to search through the knee-high, browning grass embankments (like we already had to for our community service, anyway) and yell out Holy Shit, like Bingo in a crowd of senior citizens, if you found anything interesting.
"Holy shit!" shouted Greg.
I followed the buzzwords and joined the curious onlookers.
Antonio smiled, and said, "We have another winner."
Greg spread back the grass, with gloved hands, and the gathering crouched down to see what the hell the object was. After a few seconds of silence, while recognition settled in, laughter erupted from the circle.
"A fucking douche bag?" puzzled Phil.
As I laughed, I knew everyone must have been envisioning the same thing: A woman racing down the freeway, reclined like a cholo in a low-rider, with a douche inserted in her cooch, squeezing its contents empty, and tossing it out the window.
The thought seemed insane, but considering some of our other finds, it was within the realm of possibility. Before this whole roadside gig, I would have never imagined what went on down these roadways. I mean, first of all, there were the hoardes of used condoms found. How many people could possibly be having sex, while at the helm of a couple tons of speeding steel, sporting enough kinetic energy to cripple a rhino? Enough that you should worry, I say.
Then there were the hypodermic needles. They could have been used for heroin, morphine, insulin, mainlining shots of Jack Daniels; who knows what. One day, I even discovered one by a basal thermometer. I couldnt imagine who on earth would be so hard up to conceive that, while driving down a freeway, they would shoot themselves in the ass with a hormone injection and measure their basal body temperature, searching for the ultimate peak of ovulation. It must have been a husband-and-wife, long haul trucking team, hoping to have a son built like a Mack to drive third shift.
There were also season-faded porno mags, empty forty ouncers of O.E. and Crooked I, soiled diapers, a crumpled Jose Canseco rookie card, healing crystals, hubcaps, shredded radials, a rain-warped copy of Das Kapital, miles of unraveled VHS tape, Church of Latter-Day Saints pamphlets, bloody tampons, an uncooked Bar-S ham, a freon-leaking refrigerator, skidmarked boxers, charcoal briquettes, roadmaps, a shotgun blasted exit sign, used Clearasil pads, a dissected cat carcass, a cracked Bacchus statuette, a Dead Can Dance cd, et cetera, et cetera. The obscene variety of trash was truly unbelievable. I mean, this was a roadside, not an out-of-state landfill. But you name it, we most likely came across it.
Greg picked up the douche bag and was about to put in his tarpaulin trash sack, when I said, "You should give it to the Bobsie Twins, so they can get rid of that tuna funk."
"The Bobsiewhat?" a voice said, behind me.
I turned around to find one of the Twins staring me down with a scowl. I cheesily smiled and shrugged, as if to say, "Oops-a-daisy."
"You fucking asshole. The only stink youre smelling is your upper lip, loser," she said, then socked me in the arm with a hard right cross.
My arm stung like a bitch. I wanted to shake it off, but didnt when I heard laughter from above, mixed with the chorus of traffic. I looked up and saw it was Guntersunburnt to a crisp, leaning against his maintenance truck, arms folded, laughing his ass off. Anger instantly rose inside of me, red as his skin; but, instead of stomping on his face, I grabbed my trash sack, walked off a ways, with my arm throbbing, and acted like I was hard at work. Under my breath, I was swearing like a mute tourette.
But anger couldnt last forever. Once it fizzled out, the usual self-loathing took over, followed by the suburban, white boy blues. I was jonesing for a drink like a hooker needs cock. Time was against me; it was a big rig, hauling a transplanted house with an Oversized Load banner on its ass. The days of summer slowly unwound; our gulag in its final stretch, leaning into the finish line. I thought about how we would soon return to our lives and act like we didnt know each other when our eyes met in public. There would be, of course, that split second flash of half-panicked recognition, quickly followed by the Gee-My-Shoes-Are-Certainly-Interesting look downward. I imagined Jews acted that way towards other fellow concentration camp prisoners, after the war. They were reminders of their ordeal, evoking a feeling of humility inside one another. The only feeling Gunter would evoke inside me, if I ran into him in public, I thought, was a sudden, desperate need to shove my fist down his throat and rip out his vocal chords.
The thought only pissed me off, again. I didnt mind being on the wrong end of a joke, but to have Gunter laugh at the punchline, smug and content, was too much. There had to be a border ones pride refused to cross, and Gunter just happened to be the dopey guard on duty, asleep.
I stopped near the edge of the freeway, disgustedly threw down my trash sack, and stripped off my Day-Glo hard hat, vest, and gloves. My head was swimming with angst-driven visions. One, in particular, was of me reaching into my pocket, pulling out my unopened can of Coca Cola, and throwing it through the passengers side window of a speeding Chevy pickup; followed by a screech of tires, a glimpse of Wyoming license plates, and a blistering hail of gunfire.
The commute moved with the swiftness of a river current, sounding like a mechanized vein pumping blood, sending my hair into a riot of directions. I reached down into my pocket, paused for a moment, and half-turned, looking back toward the crew. They were spread out in a staggered-looking formation, like the starting blocks of a long distance track and field event, as if anticipating the starters gun, ready to run.
Ron Gibson Jr. has appeared in Exquisite Corpse, Driver's Side Airbag, Suspect Thoughts, etc. Been included in various anthologies, most recently in "Uno--A Poetry Anthology," edited by Verian Thomas of Comrades UK. He is a staff writer at Recluse Zine and intermittent contributor at Larned Justin's Out of the Blue and Mysterious Visions Anthology. He also received honorable mention in Rain Crow's 2001 fiction chapbook competition. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org