1. Within The Brown Box
I started doing standup comedy in a quaint little Atlanta jazz club at the corner of Virginia and Moreland. Nights every stripe of late night creature would slip in to hear The New Ice Age, then the Colonel would take the stage with his inflated mannequin leg at 2 A. M. to do a bizarre monologue with offbeat original songs, most made up on the spot, gradually seeming to lose his mind, turning finally into the Southern Heavyweight Championship Belt yelling at and berating the audience in a red-faced, unprovoked rage before storming off again. “Every night we’re overlooking Grady Stadium,” he’d start quietly, as the bar sat just above the stadium where I’d played high school football. “The doors are locked, nobody can get out, we‘ve turned up the heat, and we’re going to sit in this brown box and sweat for thirty-six straight hours, at the end of which time I’ll climb to the top of a fourteen foot ladder and drop to the floor of the Midtown Jazz Club where my body will be outlined in chalk. I’ll then be wrapped in aluminum foil, and with dill pipe cleaners reaming my nasal passages, and trying to reach Ty Cobb through a MEDIUM…sized person, travel through eternal nothingness where I’ll become one with oil, ink and pencil stores…Thank you for the clap, it’s good to be back, how’re the wife and kids” (pretending to smoke an invisible joint as he pretends to look at a watch that isn’t there) “–I’ve got to see my dentist in fifteen minutes. Let me introduce the band to you if I may,” pointing to imaginary people on stage with him, “on jazz chazoid, Raymond Wooster; on sespatoon, Bobby Forte; on daralator, older type of man, doesn’t suffer any problems, had sex in astral projection for a couple years now, Crawford Boyd; and on organ erect, ladies and gentlemen, one of my favorite people, Dr. Joyce Brothers!” then he’d break into a frenetic version of a “K-nade Down,” a tongues-like balls out acappella tune while he played the mannequin leg and made bizarre trilling noises, snapping it forward like a yard long erect penis, throbbing it upward. “K-nade down and grope until, around the peak at Voltag’s Will, the crayon 4th and 6th shall speak, sytemis blonk of bladed geek, light bulb heads and grandmother faces, pound accelerator, cathartic races, eat and after desert’s gleam, knasian stamp and asses ream!” the leg jumping obscenely to attention over and over again as he made the high-pitched trilling runs, repeating the verses with even more maniacal intensity, ending the song with a berserk flourish, then stopping very seriously, smoking the phantom joint, looking at the phantom watch, saying, “I tell ya, working here at the Midtown Jazz Club’s making me a better person every day. I’d like to give everybody a back rub and a piece of cheese on the way out….I’d like to give everyone a mink stove,” then suddenly looking like he’d just woken from a trance and was shocked to see everybody sitting there. “What? People? What are people doing in the Midtown…I’ve got to see my dentist,” looking at the phantom watch, staggering to the edge of the stage puffing the phantom joint, looking around with bewilderment. Then going back into his narrative, talking about getting on a UFO the other night that said “United” on the side of it, but they had women with frozen hair. “They had food that looked like our food, but it wasn’t. Sixty-five people landed in Tucson and no one was hurt.” Every now and then he’d look at the missing watch and smoke the invisible joint, then ramble off again talking about straddling the equator holding a canister of sediment with Barbara Walters, Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant and Bob Dylan, Dylan singing, “How many times must a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn’t see? the answer, my friend, is blowing your Congressman, the answer is….” Then appearing totally shocked again, gawking around the club, seeming disoriented and puzzled, saying, “What? Who are you people? You people don’t have any respect for the Southern Heavyweight Championship Belt!” pointing and jabbing the air. “You come in here night after night stinkin’ and smellin’ up my club like pigs, farmers and hogs from Hahira and Valdosta, in your ’65 Buicks and your ‘58 Pontiacs! You don’t have enough guts to drive a Chrysler 300 like a real man! I wear diamond rings and alligator shoes, I go to the Greek Isles on my vacation like a real man, you people go to the Ramada Inn in Cordele! I’m not taking off my shirt for you ladies tonight! I’m not taking off my sunglasses for you men! And you think you can come into my club night after night insulting the Southern Heavyweight Championship Belt! I don’t see any competition out here!” strutting back and forth like an orangutan in a cage stabbing the air. “I see a bunch of pencil neck, genetic drift, nickel-rate geeks in here! I’ve got the Once Over Toe Hold! I’ve got the Russian Sickle and the African Grape Vine! You people disgust me!…” Then suddenly coming out of it and looking at everybody like they were ghosts, like he had no idea where he was or what he was doing there, backing away slowly; looking at his imaginary watch, laughing quietly out of his mind, his eyes completely crazed looking, swaying and giggling, frowning at the invisible watch, smoking the nonexistent joint. Staggering into the darkness he’d crow like a rooster, jabbing his finger at the crowd, walk away and come back and do it again a few more times, then disappear into the darkness. It was different every night, then I’d start a Mingus record behind the bar and patrons would chuckle and murmur, ordering drinks, and some baffled soul would ask me who he was.
I’d met the Colonel when I was fifteen and his band “The IV of IX” were driving around town in a white van with a crazy looking chicken hand painted on the side with the words “Royal Pee-Cock.” Dragged behind it were old lawn mowers and bicycles on chains bouncing down the highway. They’d get tossed out of half the places they played, which was half the point. When everyone else was growing long hair he had a crew cut with an H shaved on the back of his head. The night I met him he had a hundred foot mike cord and in the middle of a high energy set some UFO-like sound effects would come on, and he’d break into a frantic, freaked out panic running around the high school gym, screaming, “They’re here! They’re coming to get us! Oh my God, look out, the aliens have landed, they’re coming to get us, we’ve got to get out of here!” Then the gym lights would pop on, the music power was cut, and one of the chaperons would say “Okay now, everyone just calm down! We’re not going to have this! Everyone just settle down and have a good time, okay?” The lights would go off, the band power would come back on, everything would seem normal for a minute, then the Colonel would go nuts again, running up into the bleachers screaming, and the whole process would start over, until they warned him to cut it out if he wanted to get paid. We talked outside a few minutes, me in awe of his outrageous, tight, eccentric, nerve-wracking band and a 45 single he’d released locally called “Too Much Pressure,” at a time nobody did that. “Well,” he said in a proud amused southern drawl, “we get thrown out of every place we play. Last week we got thrown outta Winder. Week before that they kicked us outta Jasper. We’re runnin’ outta places to play.”
The weirdest thing, aside from his band being like intergalactic aliens compared to anyone else playing around, he eerily reminded me of me. There was a spooky resemblance. I felt like one of a nearly extinct species coming across another one.
I didn’t see him for a while, but his next band went national making a double album on Columbia that was the lowest selling record in the company’s history. Not because it wasn’t good; it was mesmerizing – raw, strange, a ground-breaking record, funny as hell too, but the record company was short sighted, had never heard anything like it and didn’t know what to do with it. The engineer and producer were summarily fired. It received little promotion, but musicians everywhere knew it was in a freak zone all its own. There was “forbidden guitar” by Harold Kelling and the Colonel’s strange, out there, hilarious lyrics and manic, totally off the wall surreal vocals and energy. Today it’s a collector’s item if you can find one.
I lost my father that year, became studious and serious, and went to play college football. I didn’t trust the wild people. I went from sixteen to thirty overnight. After playing the game my entire early life, I got fed up with being yelled at by middle aged men, my attention took an abrupt turn and I was going to be a writer. I met a school teacher from Baltimore even straighter than I was, waited tables and wrote religiously, but knew I was missing something. Writing with the same monk-like discipline I’d used in football, I still felt like I was living somebody else’s life. I had to find a rerouting door, step into another world that I knew damn well existed. My school teacher was normal and sweet but simply and complicatedly too normal for me. I tried to let her down easily by sending her back to Baltimore for a break, for herself as much as me.
A friend told me the Colonel was doing an off the wall standup gig at a little jazz dive in midtown, the best musicians around jamming before him, so one night I stumbled in. An Austrian gypsy guitarist was playing riveting, through the roof jazz rock with a quintet of virtuoso players who were tuned in. After them this guy who reminded me of me loped onstage with a mannequin leg. I felt the same thing I’d felt ten years ago, as if he were some long lost psychic half brother. We started talking and he remembered the night we’d met at my high school gym ten years ago. In a few weeks I was running the bar. It was the only jazz club in town, ridiculous for a city the size of Atlanta. There were jazz trios playing in restaurants, polite, homogenized, vanilla music for traditional southern dinner guests, but this was where you’d come to hear the real shit, the real jazz players.
The interior of “the brown box” was like an overdressed lounge on an ocean liner: dark wood with nautical ropes, wheels, portholes, a raised alcove with a giant ship’s wheel against a lighted stained glass window with mermaids. If it sounds hokey it worked, there was a casual and exotic ambience to the place. Stepping through the door you entered a world where nobody was feeling any pain. Originally it had been the lounge to Flannigan’s Pier, the seafood restaurant next door, our jazz club owner leasing it from the unscrupulous owner of both rooms, and we had a shared kitchen. We had oysters, hors d ‘oeuvre, cheeses, the best wine list in town, and the drunken Flannigan’s owner was always stealing our food. It had a vintage Atlanta feel to it, an open gravel parking lot mostly clay and sand scattered with magnolia trees. There were stables in back where he housed horses, a couple of his own, and was cited that year for half-starving them to death that made the local news. Years earlier a famous rock club he owned behind the stables had mysteriously burned, most suspected for insurance purposes. He was an unscrupulous scoundrel and son of a bitch, but you couldn’t have found a better place for a club. It had the feel and spirit, that strange amalgam of New York and New Orleans jazz clubs that had been around a hundred years.
The jazz club owner was Bronson. He made a show of overseeing the place but was obviously preoccupied with other business. He’d call just before opening every night to make sure I’d made it and to tell me he’d be in in an hour. Two hours later he’d call to see if everything was going okay and promised he was on his way. An hour or two later he’d call again to say he’d been delayed but would be there soon. His voice would get more and more sluggish as the night went on, until it began to drag like a recording slowed down to half speed, asking how the band was and if everything was all right, and after promising six times he’d be there soon he wouldn’t show up at all, or suddenly he’d burst into the bar with a briefcase or paper bag under his arm and head straight for the men’s room. A dozen female eyes would dilate and fixate on him; as if hypnotized or entranced, these women would jump up and follow him into the men’s room, and he’d stay in there a few minutes or come bouncing out with this train of zombie-like girls chasing him, and fly back out the door, a few in tow, or duck behind the bar into the tiny back storeroom where they couldn’t get to him. The women had a desperate look as if they needed medical attention. “Will you fix me one of those Midtown Mosses?” he’d growl to me, grinning, this drink I’d concocted from equal parts Stoli, Cuervo Gold and Kalua, and I’d take it back to where he was counting out cash, blowing his nose on a wad of tissue. In a minute he’d hand me the drained glass, asking for another one, breathing fast through his gritted, grinning teeth. In thirty minutes he’d drink seven or eight without showing any signs of inebriation or slowing down, each one seeming to ignite an excited and happy fire in him.
Our clientele was a wildly diverse group, ranging from distinguished musicians doing concerts in town to con men, hustlers, chic women, marijuana growers, pill poppers, blue collar workers, college students, assorted dealers, couples looking for a romantic hideaway, players, hookers, bohemian music lovers looking for an inconspicuous place to hang, and single working women looking to hook up or have drinks after the dinner shift downtown. Straight older couples wandered in after dinner next door, always vaguely confused as if they’d fallen through the looking glass, especially if the Colonel was onstage. Once I took some rolls of film in the place and either my camera was broken or I exposed a roomful of the strangest winged spirits sailing around, stark-looking orbs and striking configurations of bright white creatures like you’d seen photographed in the depths of the ocean. The place was inhabited like a good jazz dive ought to be. As if the souls of great jazz players had honed in on the sound and settled there. Bird, Trane, Lester Young, all the deceased jazz masters whose records we played between sets, you felt their presences. The music was the spirit, and they say liquor spirits attract spirits, and you had a place filled with that life. In silence when no other physical person was in the place I’d feel the invisible company, nothing scary or uncomfortable, a warm fluid energy of late night blues and smoke, of finding love and sharing it, losing it, mourning and yearning for it. Of the music that accompanied passion, cried for it, enhanced it, witnessed it and felt it burn into the atmosphere. I’d always have Mingus or Wayne Shorter or Miles playing, Thelonious or Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Lush Life by Coltrane and Jonny Hartman. Souls drifting in to mix love, sex, music and booze. Every night as I closed up I’d look at a girl’s number on a bar napkin, thinking about falling in love again, relishing serving drinks where women came to me and wanted to be my friend. I was their surrogate date and protector, their captive confidant, a willing man to serve them and flirt with a few hours. Watching them leave with a man, I knew it could be me, but I had them all so what was my hurry? The club was romance itself: you never knew what exquisite creatures would appear. I did find a lover who lived up the street in an ante bellum house with giant white columns, a practical, uninhibited working girl. We’d talk books and writing, smoke, drink and make love till dawn listening to Keith Jarrett and Miles. I knew I’d found that chimerical place through that missing door, or it had found me.
Watching the Colonel do his bizarre standup every night I realized I could do it. You have no idea you can do something, then suddenly it grabs you and makes you. It was like that, like some voice or invisible force dragging me to the stage. Jonathan Winters, Zero Mostel, Richard Pryor, Woody Allen, Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, the Colonel was funnier than all of them, physically funnier on or off stage, it didn’t matter where he was. I’d be laughing tears behind the bar, knowing this was what I’d been looking for. This comedy was jazz, a free form, stream of consciousness, joyful lunacy. I wanted to cut loose and go nuts, feel and hear that crazy, happy release into mindless laughter, that painless feeling of people letting go, and the first time I looked down into those laughing faces I was hooked. It was like discovering a cure for aging or despair or banal stupidity, sure as hell for boredom, you got up in front of people and followed this zip line of absurdity, and as it flowed you felt like nothing on earth could touch or hurt you or them, you were injecting them with forgetting anything not to laugh about. Exhilarating. The Colonel called it “The Theater of Embarrassment,” this crazy formula of funny, and it was liberating. You have to go crazy to stay sane,” he’d say. Nobody could teach it to you, you had it or you didn’t, and if you did you didn’t know why, but that didn’t matter, it was a gift. It was a high you shared with fifty or a hundred people, and afterword felt like you’d had giddy sex with, floating on some wild river of euphoria. What people wanted in their lives along with love, the Colonel said, was abandonment. Not to be abandoned, but to let go of everything, to cut loose and fly with nothing holding them down.
Comedy was the Colonel’s gig, mine running the bar, but most nights we’d do some off the wall mad collaboration. He’d be in the middle of his wrestler rant and say he was bringing up his tag team partner to say a few words, and I’d go up and yell at the audience while he stalked around scowling at them, or he’d say he didn’t see any competition out there, and I’d step up and challenge him, yelling and pointing at him, our faces beet red. We’d start wrestling, knocking over chairs, he’d throw me over his shoulder and hurl me off the stage and pull out a bar of soap, yelling “I’ve got the soap! I’ve got the soap!” and pretend to rub it in my eyes while I writhed and screamed on the floor. Or he’d tell me to do the show and in the middle of it go up and start yelling at me, telling the audience I was an impostor, he had the Belt and I’d stolen it from him, he’d get me in a headlock and pretend to knock me half conscious. I’d stagger off and he’d go into another spiel. Every night was different, never planned, and half the time the audience had no idea who we were or what we were doing, but they were laughing. Even better, some of them, stone-cold stunned, giggling nervously. They’d come in to hear jazz and relax with cocktails and these two lunatics were yelling at them and each other at two in the morning and knocking over furniture.
The waitress Ebbie and I were going out, and she and the Colonel and I were together most of the time. She was small and spunky with giant breasts, shining wet brown eyes, a high, gnat-like voice. She made vegetarian dinners, turned me onto herbs and chiropractors and astrology as the Colonel turned me onto Sun Ra, Coltrane, Ornette Coleman. The Colonel could accurately “guess” birthdays. He’d divine someone’s sun sign after studying them, then hit very close to the day or the day itself if he could guess their moon. He was a musical purist who couldn’t listen to popular music. “Please turn that off!” he’d beg me when some catchy pop tune came on the radio; he’d be groping for the off button. Five notes and it was like a hot poker on his skin. It was all about sound, he said. God was sound, and you could tell how little He was in the world by the absence of God-like tone. It was mostly noisy, cheap, commercial crap like fast food for the ears, the waves becoming more and more polluted with time. Stevie Wonder was an exception; he had that God-like sound. The Colonel liked Stravinsky, Penderecki, most of the great jazz people, soul and blues if it was real. Even if it was dissonant, the intention was everything.
We were booking the high priests of jazz: Mose Allison, Art Blakey, Horace Silver, McCoy Tyner, working on getting Ornette, Rahsaan, Sonny Rollins. The place was drawing serious jazz lovers who couldn’t believe these giants were coming here. John Coltrane’s piano player, McCoy Tyner, was a spiritual revelation, a vibration that changed the molecules of that tiny room. His drummer Eric Gravatt was an epiphany, his cymbal breakdowns lyrical. Georgie Adams who’d played with Mingus on “Changes/One and Two” had an eerie living sax that gave you chills, a river through your nerves like an orgasm and kept lifting it up until you could barely stay in the room. He’d go into a run holding it over his head and it was like some mythical spiritual creature inhabited and possessed his horn, making a wailing, unbearably pleading sound raising the hairs on your neck. The percussionist was a beautiful Persian kid taken with my girlfriend, an artist with a palette of sounds who sat in yogic meditation when not playing. The club was jammed and after each show there was a tone or vibration in the air like a warm prayer mist. After hearing that music from ten feet away, I was never the same again.
Nights when we closed Ebbie and I took a cold bottle of Piesporter and drove to a swimming pool club I knew of in a secluded cul de sac. We’d climb the fence, get naked and play in the Olympic size pool in the dark with the bottle on the side, coming up to guzzle it, making love in the shallow end. We’d get breakfast, go to her house, smoke pot and make love till dawn with her cat watching us, sleep all day, wake up as the sun was setting, and do it again. I had everything I wanted and not much else, a long lost eccentric’s unnamed dream.
“Tauruses as children are often stalked by poltergeists,” our astrology book said. “No doubt about it,” the Colonel, a Taurus, said, “And they’re still there.” One Sunday night Ebbie and I reached my apartment and the Colonel was standing at the side of the building gazing into space. It’s impossible to describe how funny he could be just standing there like he didn’t see us.
“What ya’ll up to?” he said after we grabbed him.
“Going to the Bahou Container, wanna come?”
“I knew you’d be doing something hip.”
Ebbie and I were stoned and craving this Middle Eastern food we ate twice a week. The Colonel never smoked or drank, but always seemed higher than us. He didn’t need it, he said, he was on drugs naturally, and not in the cliché way of being “high on life.” He couldn’t have handled it literally. If he was in a group of people smoking pot, he’d be contact higher than anybody.
I had two or three entrees and the food was a sexual culinary dream. We laughed our asses off and started out to the house where the Colonel had lived with his ex wife a few years before. He’d been famous then, played Fillmore East with Frank Zappa and John Lennon, become helplessly entangled in two record companies suing each other over rights to his music, gotten divorced, and been temporarily traumatized. He’d lain in his bathtub with the water drained out for eight hours one night, he said, staring at the ceiling. “I was sure Patty Hearst was hiding in my basement,” he said, “Until I realized I didn’t have a basement.” Musician friends lived there now, and there was a vacant house next door we wanted to check out.
It was a crisp October night and we were in Ebbie’s egg-white Opel Kadet. I could feel something building as we headed out there. We were a few miles away, driving up a long dark grade through woods with no visible houses or lights. It was clear and moonless. The Colonel was driving, Ebbie in the middle, I rode shotgun, and I happened to glance at the Colonel’s face illuminated by the soft flickering glow from the dash. He was peering over the steering wheel beginning to duck down behind it, cringing like something was about to happen. What the hell’s he doing? I thought, as he kept bending lower and lower like he was bracing for something, his face becoming more squished up like he was in pain. All of the sudden a ball of white light swept down out of the sky on his, the driver’s side of the car, and banged hard into it, really hard, like something solid and massive, and we all screamed, and the car weaved and swerved all over the place. We came to a stop and were okay, sitting there in the middle of the dark road, the car idling, our lights the only illumination for miles, everything pitch black around us. I could barely see a mountain-like ridge on our left and the dark trees against the starlit sky. Nothing else, nothing at all. “What the hell was that!” the Colonel yelled. “What was it? What the hell!” We sat there looking around, no idea what to do. Finally I got out, we all did, we were shaking, walking around the car inspecting it closely, looking and listening all around us again. There was no sign of anything or anyone. There wasn’t a mark or scratch or dent on the car, no burn marks, nothing. The only sound was the engine humming. We were seriously spooked. We felt like we’d entered the twilight zone, especially the Colonel returning to this place where he’d gone through so much emotional turmoil a few years before.
We got in the car and kept driving. When we reached the house his musician friends were recording in a home studio and there was a strange atmosphere. A Taurus woman the Colonel later told me he’d slept with once, was there, looking like she’d just had a nervous breakdown. I’d seen her around, she was nice enough, but knew that, like the Colonel, she was out there. One of the musicians said to her after a few minutes, seriously irritated, “Don’t do that again, okay? Don’t ever do that again,” and she looked conspicuously distraught, like a dog who’d peed on the carpet. We never found out what “that” was, but something had happened at about the same time the ball of light smashed our car.
We took flashlights and strolled down the hill to see the vacant house. The electricity was off, so we walked through the empty rooms with light beams glaring around the bare walls. Ebbie and I were thinking about moving in together. The Colonel and I stepped out on the concrete terrace by ourselves, and I was looking at the stars.
“Ron, look!” he said suddenly, and when I did it appeared his eyes were gazing down from a hundred feet over the ground. You could see the milky distance in his gaze, arms dangled at his sides like he was hanging in the air by his shoulders, literally floating in front of me.
“Goddamn!” I said. “Are you okay?”
“Hold me down! Push me down, quick!” so I grabbed his shoulders, shoving him down as hard as I could, as if he was being propelled off the earth and would fly off if I didn’t, as if he was full of helium or wearing a jet pack or there was no gravity. I didn’t need any explanation; I pushed him down and kept pushing him down, all the way to the ground to his knees, kept holding him down, squeezing his shoulders, and he screamed out loud a terrified primal scream, “Ahhhhhhhhhh.….ahhhhhhhh!…..” Everybody came out of the house like there was a fire, watching me grind him down to the concrete. He collapsed and sat on the ground, panting, giggling nervously, after a minute going “Oh shit! Oh God, thanks. Thanks, man, I was going! Did you see that? Did you see it? I was fucking going, all right. I was fucking gone, man, if you hadn’t done that. You saved my ass, Ron. Oh God, yeah, fuck yeah. Thanks.”
If you invented a musical instrument, Dr. Ben “Pops” Thornton would master it in thirty minutes and be running riffs for you. The original hip cat, no pretense or bullshit, the genuine eccentric thing, he was part beat musician, a real hippie who’d played with major rock bands through the sixties and seventies, and could sit in with any musicians on earth: a wigged out, wild, whimsical, funny as hell upbeat guy. He liked to get high and groove, and he and the Colonel started coming on every night after the regular show with a skewed, offbeat, borderline surreal gospel set as “The Millionaires.” “Pops” was white with a grey natural Afro like a cartoon character who’d stuck his finger in an electric socket, lanky-thin like he hadn’t eaten in days; glassy-eyed, his head bobbed like a bobble head as he blissfully grooved onstage. The music was always playing in him, flowing from some very cool fountain of blissful hipness. The Colonel played electric guitar as “Pops” played every known horn, sometimes the bass saxophone that would sizzle in your groin. A sax player told me once he got a lot of women playing bottom notes on a bass saxophone that would vibrate in their genitals while he stared at one hot girl in the audience, her squirming and rubbing her thighs together, then she’d come up and talk to him after the show. It worked, he said, like an instrumental pussy trap. But this was another gig altogether. The Colonel and “Pops” would be in the middle of some very sheened out gospel tune and the Colonel would go into an out there trance with his eyes like stars, and start stumbling around the club picking up salt and sugar shakers filling his shirt with them, ashtrays, menus and napkins, preaching about “men parked behind women in cars.” Like the other standup stuff it was never the same on any night, it was jazz improvisation where musicians go “outside,” venturing into previously unexplored territory. The Colonel was hilarious to watch and could go completely out and have the whole place giggling and yelling out to him as “Pops” stood there digging it and nodding with a stoned smile, then the Colonel would jump back onstage and go into another gospel tune, ending with getting the club making egg noises, the other half rooster sounds, an oddball responsive participation crescendo. “Are they really millionaires?” a woman asked me, looking at the Colonel with his three day beard, mustard-stained thrift store clothes he’d slept in, flailing with his hair flying going berserk like a gospel singer purging a demon. “Oh yeah,” I said, knowing the Colonel lived on fumes, restaurant coupons, crashed on friends’ couches and “Pop’s” instruments were worth ten times what his car was. “They’re loaded.”
The Colonel knew everybody in the music business. Monster players from every genre came to hear him and sit in. One night a tall classically trained Norwegian blonde violinist played with him, going from classical to hillbilly riffs with the Colonel doing a mock interpretive ballet around the club. He looked like a graceful serious dancing buffalo, waltzing up into the lighted alcove to do pirouettes, going into a wired exotic shimmy for a minute, dancing fluidly back onstage to sing a inbred-hick, hair-lipped version of “Wolverton Mountain.”
Nights “Pops” had another gig the Colonel and I or one of us did the Theater of Embarrassment, but on nights when the Colonel was killing it by himself I started to realize I had to get this on tape. Only those who drifted in or followed him knew this comical genius was languishing away in a dark little hideaway while far less funny people were getting rich on sitcoms and late night talk shows. I could be funny, do some of what the Colonel did and make people laugh, but when the Colonel was in his zone he was funnier than any damn body; hardly trying he was naturally, ridiculously, uncontrollably funny. Some nights he’d watch Johnny Carson and come in and sit on a stool and tell everybody “all these jokes came from Johnny Carson,” which they did, though everybody thought that was a joke too–who would steal Johnny Carson’s jokes and come in to tell you that? Then he’d do the jokes and they were great. Hell, they’d come from Johnny Carson. But there were nights in another zone completely the Colonel’s, when he’d start off quietly, casually smoking the phantom joint, looking at the phantom watch, and gradually go so hilariously insane it was a sin so many people were missing it. I had to share this with the world: at least let people hear this shit. I hired a kid from Georgia Tech to set up microphones around the stage and tape the Colonel for three weeks, hoping to catch these levitatingly funny trances where he lost himself and went into another sphere beyond jokes.
The first nights he was aware of the taping and like a watched animal didn’t do anything. I could see the silhouette of the kid in headphones in the alcove against the blue-lighted sea and mermaids, the Colonel hollering, “Is that goddamn tape running!” the kid leaping from his seat. The third night the Colonel loosened up and started to forget he was being recorded, then one night with thirteen people in the club, including Bronson the owner, a guitar player from Thermos Greenwood and the Colored People, that thing took over and he lost his mind. He was stumbling and reeling all over the club, ranting, eyes rolled up in his head, and everybody knew they were witnessing it. He darted into the ladies room and flew out hurling paper towels in the air, screaming, “Paper towels in the ladies room! Why anyone would put paper towels in the ladies room!” The phone at the bar rang and he yelled, “Don’t get that, it’s for me!” and answered, “Shea Stadium,” went into a maniacal laughter and started filling his shirt with everything on the tables, giggling and hooting, then crammed a stage microphone down his shirt, got into a large trashcan, and stood in a trance for fifteen minutes with that look I’d seen on his face the night I shoved him down to the ground. Everybody in the club was waiting and watching, nobody wanted to move or disturb the spirits. He played the clanks, jingles and collapses of junk in his shirt like an instrument every time he shifted or jiggled through the microphone, laughing hysterically; it went on for an hour with eight minutes of the strangest stream of consciousness giddy rant I’d ever heard, a comic tongues monologue. He didn’t remember it and it would never happen again, but after it everything he did was unhinged, bizarre and manic, and every night I was getting the real stuff, some of which would later be on a record. It was like taping Sasquatch bouncing off the walls.
When anyone asked how he was doing, he’d say, “I’m looking for hospitalization” with a chuckle. He couldn’t handle being on that big stage, though he could’ve been. It wasn’t what charged or inspired him, that shiny, cheesy, vacuous trap called “celebrity” that had little to do with the soul or sound. He wanted to hide and perform at the same time in a subsistence bubble, eke by and not have to deal with the mainstream, soul-eating entertainment life. “I want no acceptance and no rejection,” he’d say, and very occasionally, “Ron, I act like I’m crazy, but I am.”
So I’d been scraping up rent and food every month, living and writing in an efficiency across the park in the building where Margaret Mitchell lived when she was struck and killed by a taxi in 1949. The first apartment I had there was on the same floor she’d owned entirely, and writing late at night I could’ve sworn I wasn’t alone. Now I was making $250 a week plus tips, a comparative fortune to what I was used to. I was the party ringleader every night, listening to real music, breaking new off the wall ground in standup. The club was getting noticed and you could feel the buzz as new clientele poured in and stayed late. Famous musicians were getting the word and dropping in after events and plays, comedians in town working other clubs, names in music, stage, screen stars looking for an out of the way place to chill and have a drink after concerts at the Fox or Chastain. Billy Eckstine appeared one night with an entourage and laughed through the Colonel’s show. Friday the 13th after Mose Allison played I watched him sitting by himself with an aperitif when the Colonel came on. He heard something and broke a smile. After a minute he was looking around the club, like, who is this guy, listening and chuckling.
“Not bad for Friday the 13th,” I said to Mose.
“Yeah, but tomorrow’s gonna be hell,” he drawled dryly.
Musician’s reps were getting in touch with us to book now. We were snowballing, and if the place crashed not only would we be out work, there wouldn’t be another place like it on earth. Not that would book jazz like this or let the Colonel and I go stark raving mad every night for the hell of it. I could bartend anywhere, but even if I wasn’t working here it was the only place I’d want to be.
Elvis died on August 16th. In October Lynyrd Skynyrd’s plane plummeted into the backwoods of Mississippi killing half the band and mangling the rest. Those two days set a dismal tone for the music world that were not a good omen. Roger, the owner of the restaurant and jazz club property, saw us making money and getting recognition for the music we brought in. He saw crowds piling in every night, and who was in the crowds. Maybe he was jealous of our business: it was better than his. But the real reason he didn’t want us there anymore, he told Bronson, was “we were bringing all these black people around.” He said those words to Bronson. I got him to repeat it. Are you kidding me? That’s why he wants to shut us down? Did people still do that kind of thing in 1977? Hell yes, they did, there were all manner of overtly racist freaks and morons stalking around Atlanta, coming on the news every night to complain about “what the niggers were doing.” People like the former Governor, Lester Maddox, who’d chased black people from his restaurant with an axe handle, who flew the American flag at half mast at the governor’s mansion when Muhammad Ali fought his first fight in Atlanta after coming off of an illegal suspension by the boxing commission. Or J. B. Stoner who looked like some missing link from the eighteen hundreds, limping around town on a fake leg with his giant dumb son body guard, spouting off something on tv about how “it was his right to keep the niggers out of his business.” And now this fat white alcoholic fool was shutting down the only real jazz club the city had ever seen because he didn’t like black people? It was so stupid, obscene and maddening, but almost predictably fitting. The kind of soulless racism and white stupidity that fomented blues and jazz in the first place, gave people the need to lament in a soulful prayer for the burdened misery of the human race; but I wasn’t appreciating the irony. I’d grown up with this kind of obtuse thing but it still caught me off guard, blindsided and depressed me. When anything beautiful or good was born there was always some ignorant ogre ready to ruin it. Cramming black people into the backs of buses, giving them separate water fountains and bathrooms, making them do business out the back door, that was the old South. But you could still shut down the only jazz club in town so “all these black people won’t be hanging around.” I wanted to pound Roger’s face into hamburger meat.
It was like a friend dying. Our gravy train, entertainment and music and party and some rare animal was being put down. It felt perverse and senselessly evil. The last night we had a party and the Colonel went onstage and talked about all the odd acts we’d had, because there were some peculiar ones. “La Boheme” were three shy guys with acoustic guitars who sat nervously in chairs and played furious standards Richie Havens style, at the end of each song the Greek bearded leader out of breath, gasping, “That one really takes it out of us,” while they awkwardly tuned their guitars. Art Blakey’s road manager sitting at the bar drinking a Brandy Alexander, Blakey sitting next to him raking him over the coals for it.
“Gonna get drunk and drive all night?” Blakey growled.
“Ain’t gettin’ drunk, havin’ one drink.”
“How you gon’ drive drunk?”
“One drink ain’t gon’ make me drunk.”
“Gon’ drive all night, huh? Get drunk and drive all night. How you gon’ do that?”
“One drink, that’s it. I can have one drink and not feel a thing.”
“You get drunk and have a wreck you won’t have nothing.”
“One drink! What you talkin’ about? Don’t think I can handle one drink?”
“Get drunk, you won’t have no job. Go ahead and get drunk, see what happens.”
That went on for ten minutes, they talked about hotels and bookings, then Blakey started in on him again, cussing and chewing him out, giving him pure hell for having a cocktail. It had to be the worst drink anybody ever had.
There was the gypsy guitar player who was phenomenal, who after Bronson ushered into his office for “medical care” played better than anybody, sweating and wincing and grinning like a crazed lit up jack-o’-lantern, wired out of his mind, the whole place on its feet screaming, the gypsy playing impossible electric riffs you’d never heard in your life. And there was the old black drummer named Arthur who’d recorded with every soul group in the sixties, putting together a quartet of young players, one a tall thin intellectual keyboardist named Rameda Ruel, who would get fried before going on, then deeply immersed in his synthesizer solos, leaning down over his keyboard with this intense grin grooving on himself, Arthur with this would you shut the fuck up look on his face, leaning over poking Rameda in the ribs with his drumstick while he tapped his cymbal with the other. Rameda was so deep in his solo he didn’t notice, Arthur poking the stick harder and harder until he jammed him finally really hard, Rameda bouncing up straight with a shocked, embarrassed look like he’d been caught masturbating, heading back into the melody.
God, I’d miss it, every bit of it. The characters, the music. The uncharted comedy, the late night refuge, the drama, the friends, the irreplaceable romance of it all, the strange, languorous and exotic women appearing every night to entertain me at my bar. Like moths around the floodlight we hovered in this cozy, charmed place where we knew the spirits would warm us.
On November 30th the doors closed and the brown box was done.
2. New York With The Invisible Whip
“How about we head to New York and hear some music?” the Colonel said. “J. A.’s on tour, said we could use his Manhattan loft. Don Cherry’s at NYU, Oregon’s in town, I’ll see who else, Sonny, Miles, Rahsaan maybe.”
“When do we leave?” we said.
We were shaken up about the club closing and knew a trip would do us good. We’d spend the first night at D. J.’s in South Carolina. The best car we owned was Ebbie’s little Kadet and it was burning oil. As we left we got word Rahsaan Roland Kirk had just died–another kick in the stomach. I’d been listening to “The Case of the Three Sided Dream” every day. We’d talked to his agent about booking him. Another irreplaceable player spirit and High Priest of Jazz was gone, the wild, sweet, crazy, cackling, bitching, railing, blaring three saxes conflating and vibrating at once madman and master prophet, the raving, angry, heartbreakingly tender serenading comedian who could make you laugh and hurt and cry at the same time he played so nice and from the heart and gut at once, whose sound was as unmistakable as Coltrane’s or Bird’s or anyone’s, was lifted from earth into the musical spheres. I’d listened to him so much lately I could feel him spinning and laughing, wielding these deep sweet harmonics in my head from the spirit world. A vacuum gaped in front of us before we got on the road, but we were going to where his sounds still hummed. I loved that crazy motherfucker; he made me happier than any jazz player really, he touched me. A few years later as I listened to Rahsaan, Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder, it hit me, and I knew it wasn’t coincidental, these were three black blind musical prophets. The man who soared so sweetly on “The Theme from the Eulipians” wasn’t walking around anymore. Him dying with the jazz club seemed cruel, especially with the way he purred on “There Will Never Be Another You.”
Fifty miles north of Atlanta we smelled fumes and pulled into a Goodrich garage to check for a muffler leak. A redneck lunatic mechanic put the car up on the rack and started welding a hole in the muffler next to the gas tank. Thinking the guy was out of his mind we ran into the parking lot and hid behind cars. Fireballs bumped under the chassis like roman candles, him teetering on a ladder, a cigarette wagging in his mouth, wild greasy hair blowing in the wind, hollering “Where ya’ll goin’! Come on back up here, ain’t nothing gon’ happen!”
Somehow the car didn’t explode and we were off again. We could still smell exhaust fumes but it wasn’t dangerous yet, that would come later. D. J. and his French wife and kids greeted us and we had a big chicken dinner with wine in their Eighteenth Century homestead, the kitchen separated from the rest of the house by a breezeway. D. J. was a genius jazz composer, percussionist and drummer who’d played with and put together successful jazz ensembles. After his wife put the kids to sleep and didn’t come down he started flirting with Ebbie, which I was used to. When we said we were going to bed he practically begged her to sit up a while, trying not to be obvious. I liked him and took it as a compliment, knowing Ebbie wasn’t into lecherous old men.
In the morning we had a big breakfast with eggs, sausage and the works, and hit the road with the Colonel curled up in the backseat trying to sleep. Imagine a small bison in a fetal position scrunched into a space the size of a small trunk. We listened to him moaning, grunting and farting for hours.
“Don’t ever let me eat sausage again!” he said. “Stop me if you ever see me near a damn sausage. Please turn off that damn radio, I can’t take it. Oh God, is that Steely Dan? Are you trying to kill me?”
As soon as the Baltimore girl had found out about Ebbie, she’d broken down, calling me crying and whimpering. Feeling terrible about it I’d made it worse by telling Ebbie, upsetting her, and we’d had awful emotional scenes. The truth is at twenty-six I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. Too attached to two women at the same time, I was a mess, and ill equipped to resolve my feelings about them. The Baltimore girl’s family was enraged at me and her mother called my mother screaming that I’d better marry her daughter. Not a glowingly good sign for the happy couple. I wanted to get away from her; I knew we’d just drive each other crazy, but couldn’t bear to hurt her. We’d both lost our fathers at fifteen, not the healthiest bond to found a relationship on. I had to be a father as well as boyfriend and was scrambled and screwed up about it, pissed off half the time, guilt-ridden for pulling away but miserable with her.
The closer we got to Baltimore the quieter Ebbie got. I could feel this emotion slowly building in the car and knew the Colonel knew what was going on. We kept making small talk about stupid things as the city signs came up. There was nothing pretty about Baltimore seen from the interstate in December of 1977, it was a bleak, rusted out ghetto of dark warehouses and factories. No one said a word for ten minutes and we were right in the middle of this drab winter industrial town when suddenly Ebbie blurted out: “Baltimore sucks! This place is hell!”
The Colonel started cackling.
“Well it does! Look at it! It sucks, I hate this place!”
Let her get it out, I thought, staring straight ahead in my private hell.
“It is pretty bad,” the Colonel said, laughing again. “Not too nice.”
“It’s shit!” Ebbie said. “Fuck this place. Who’d ever want to live here?”
“Ha haaaaaaa! Not me.”
It was the least I deserved; I was lucky she didn’t punch me in the mouth. In a few minutes we were on the outskirts of the city, thank God, and I found a jazz station with Billie Holiday singing “If I Take A Notion.” Every few minutes the Colonel made a crazy sound from the back seat with a string of maniacal laughter.
“Pisces and Cancer!” he said. “You two aren’t emotional.”
“A preoccupation with inconsequential details,” I said, referring to his Virgo moon.
“Ha haaaaaaaaa!” he cackled. “We’re in a goddamn Opel Kadet driving to New York! We’re nowhere. Who the hell are we?”
“Don’t start with that no one shit,” Ebbie said. “You know who we are.”
“Maybe you’re somebody, I’m nobody. Not today.”
Ebbie gave me a knowing smile. At least we could be amused by something. The fumes in the car were getting worse so we decided to get a cheap room and roll into New York in the morning.
The next day we were on the New Jersey Turnpike getting swept and blown around by herds of semis, grinding and dodging our way into the Big Apple. We crawled through the Holland Tunnel and as we nosed into the light of the broad intersection a New York taxi came barreling across hitting a ramp-like bump lifting it into the air, floating and suspended over the street for what seemed like an eternity, like something staged, or an airborne dream, bounced three or four times with sparks flying off the muffler and shot out of sight.
“Good to be back!” the Colonel said. “That was acid. We’re here all right.”
We wound into Manhattan finding J. A.’s big, comfortable third floor loft at 11th and 18th. Gary Campbell, who played tenor sax with the New Ice Age, was keeping the apartment for J. A. but knew we were coming. The Colonel stood up in the high picture windows looking up and down the street for “crazies.” “There he is!” he said, “look at him!” a ragged black man limping down the street jabbering to himself, yelling at people rushing by and avoiding him. “In the sixties there were fifty of those guys on every corner, screaming out of their minds.” The Colonel pulled his shirt up with his stomach sticking out and started shimmying and hollering, “Hey motherfuckers, look up here, what’s coming down! Oooooo, ha haaaaaaa! Yeah, look up here! We’re in goddamn New York, look at me you motherfuckers! You like that, hell yeah!”
The high ceilinged living room was huge with several long sofas in the open, a built-in desk at one end with a high partition separating it from the rest of the room. Gary was sleeping in the bedroom down the hall, so we dragged another mattress out, dropping it behind the desk for Ebbie and I. The Colonel was sleeping on one of the sofas, which he was used to like most musicians. We went down to the corner market and bought stir fry vegetables, bok choy, napa and shrimp to make a wok dinner, Gary and the Colonel filling each other in on who was playing in town. After dinner we strolled downtown in the crisp December New York air to a cheerful, hip and well-lighted jazz club where Oregon was playing, the band grinning seeing the Colonel walk in. Christmas decorations filled store windows and sparkled everywhere in the streets. Oregon had a deep contemplative jazz sound like peaceful woods in a winter dream, exquisite layers of beautiful sound. Ebbie and I warmed with Irish coffees and on the way back stopped at a pizzeria for slices.
“No other energy like this town,” the Colonel said. “If you have money it’s heaven, if you don’t it’s hell.”
“Ever been to the city?” Gary asked me.
“Visited friends here a few days when I was sixteen.”
“Find anything you want here any time of day. In five minutes you can be watching people fuck live on stage, see a fifteen year old boy getting fist-fucked.”
“That’s what we came for!” Ebbie said. “Any other attractions?”
“You can watch midgets fucking.”
“Hey,” she giggled, “That was first on my list!”
Back at the loft Gary retired to his bedroom to study musical theory for an exam at NYU. Jazz musicians had a hard time gigging regularly, so he was working on a music degree so he could teach. Ebbie and I undressed behind the partition and smoked a joint while the Colonel leafed through a magazine on the sofa. In a minute he was as high as we were, making off the wall songs, doing farting and egg noises, talking like a degenerate hick, cackling out of his mind. Suddenly an idea came to me: a perfect idea; an irresistibly hilarious idea, and I started laughing uncontrollably. It was one of the funniest ideas I’d ever had, because I knew what was going to happen in the next few minutes, how Ebbie was going to react to it, and the more I thought about it the funnier it got. It was as if it had already happened because I could see it all, but I was laughing so hard I couldn’t get started with it. I was buck naked and Ebbie was topless beside me in her bikini underwear.
“What is it?” Ebbie said. “What’s so damn funny?”
I was crying, shaking my head.
“Tell me what it is? Did I do something weird? What the hell is it! What’s so fucking hilarious?”
I couldn’t get it out. I tried but I couldn’t.
“Tell me, dammit! You better tell me!” She started tickling me, which made it worse, and I could hear the Colonel giggling because he knew something was going on.
“Why don’t we…” I started. “Let…Let’s…” I couldn’t get it out.
“What?” Ebbie said. “Let’s what? What the hell is it?”
“Let’s…Let’s show the Colonel…Let’s show the Colonel…your tits…”
The second I said it she was fighting me furiously. I started trying to pick her up to carry her out there, but she was wriggling and fighting me like a mad woman, like a porpoise on steroids or some hundred pound fish out of water, panicking and flailing with thirty limbs going in all directions, screaming, “No! No way!…hell no you don’t…hell no…stop it…you’re out of your mind…don’t…stop it!…cut it out!…”
I had her in my arms but I was laughing so hard I couldn’t stand up with her. On the other side of the partition the Colonel was cheering, goading me on, “Yeah, yeah, lemme see ‘em! lemme see ‘em, show em to me, lemme see ‘em!…”
I kept trying to stand up and collapsing back on the mattress. She was fighting me fiercely, as if her life depended on it, laughing and yelping and determined not to be carried out there where the lustful ogre was salivating to see her huge breasts. We wrestled like that for five minutes, me laughing so hard I couldn’t control her or get up, she battling and writhing and squirming and kicking with amazing superhuman strength, doing everything she could think of to free herself. Finally I managed to get a good enough grip on her, carrying her like a large baby, her legs still flailing high in the air, fists beating me, and staggered around the partition where the Colonel was leaning out from the sofa bug-eyed going lemme see ‘em lemme see ‘em, and I was laughing so hard when we stumbled to the middle of the living room I just collapsed on the carpet in front of him, aching and crying and trying to hold onto her, Ebbie squealing and screeching, trying desperately to cover herself. We hit the floor and she rolled off me, covering her breasts, bending forward, me still trying to hang onto her arm for a few seconds, and she scrambled behind the partition. I was laughing blind and the Colonel was hooting and hollering. “I saw them bazoombas! I saw ‘em! Hell yeah! I seen them damn bosoms!”
“You sons of bitches!” Ebbie screamed at us. “I’ll get you both for that, you assholes! Just you wait you motherfuckers!”
Which made us laugh more, hollering and cackling out of our minds. Suddenly she bolted back around the partition, strutting straight out to the Colonel with her chest stuck out, her big beautiful twenty-five year old breasts lifted high, and said, “You want to see ‘em, here they are, asshole! Look at ‘em!” and pushed them right in his face. “Get a big eyeful you son of a bitch! Now you’ve seen ‘em! Are you happy now?” The Colonel’s eyes literally poked out like saucers gawking at them with a look like, I was just joking, but goddamn, look at those things, and Ebbie strutted back behind the partition.
“What the hell’s going on in here!” Gary came storming in, seeing me lying naked on the floor in hysterics. “I’m trying to study back here, goddamit! Will you fucking keep it down! What the fuck’s wrong with you people!”
“We were just showing the Colonel….Ebbie’s breasts,” I said, the Colonel and I still howling, me so hard I couldn’t see through my tears “Sorry, man, really. We’ll keep it down, I promise.”
“I swear, you guys,” Ebbie said, ticked off but chuckling behind the partition. “You’re gonna pay for that shit. I really hope you know that.”
At high noon we headed to Victor’s Cuban Café to meet another of the Colonel’s crazy friends. This one had been a member of some underground revolutionary group in the sixties.
“You think I’m crazy,” the Colonel said, “B. C.’s completely cooked. Don’t mention that stuff in the sixties though, he’ll flip out.”
The Colonel couldn’t remember where Victor’s was though he’d eaten there fifty times. We trudged half a block and turned around and started the other way, then turned around again. It was frigid and blustery, shoppers rushing around with scarves and collars up hugging Christmas packages. The Colonel wore a long brown corduroy coat, collar snugged above his ears, walking stiffly with his hands in his pockets. Ebbie kept scurrying ahead of us like she knew where she was going, her legs half as long as ours, like a little girl flitting ahead of her parents. When we turned around I started to call to her but the Colonel said “No, no, don’t tell her! Act like we didn’t see her, keep going.”
We were walking the other way and in a few seconds she came running up behind us, her natty voice screaming, “Slow down you sons of bitches! You knew I was going the wrong way, wait for me, damn it!”
“If you know where we’re going, show us,” the Colonel said.
In a few minutes he changed his mind again, saying “no, no, wait a minute, it’s this way, that’s right, now I remember,” and we started back the other way.
Again Ebbie was out in front of us. “Don’t tell her, don’t do it!” he said, giggling. I glanced back and she was fifty yards up the avenue; I saw her realize we were gone again and turned ahead quickly.
“You assholes!” she said, jockeying up beside us, fighting through foot traffic. “Stop trying to get rid of me!”
“We’re not listening to her, are we, Ron?”
“That’s right, Colonel.”
“You better listen to me or I’ll beat your asses!”
We changed direction at least seven times and walked six blocks before we found the restaurant. B. C. waited for us by himself at a table and the Colonel just started pointing at him, cackling when we came in. “Scorpio!” the Colonel said. “The most Scorpio Scorpio on the planet, look at him, he’s got poison spears! He’ll cut your dick off!”
“You’re looking worse than ever,” B. C. said to the Colonel.
“See? He’s got poison darts. He’ll kill everybody.”
B. C. was a diminutive little balding nerd in his thirties, not what I expected from a dangerous underground revolutionary. His face lit up when he laid eyes on Ebbie, grinning at her like a sex starved castaway sighting a mermaid.
“What are you doing tonight?” he said to her, and at first I thought he was talking to all of us. “I was thinking of going dancing, you like to dance? There’s a hot band at a club around the corner.”
I thought it was a joke and Ebbie looked at me, like what are you going to do? The Colonel started laughing. It was too stupid and ridiculous to get upset about, just yet anyway. He would start hitting on her like they were alone, leaning toward her intimately and she’d frown at him and laugh nervously.
“Dicks, death and darkness,” the Colonel said. “He wants to put that po po in and kill everybody with poison spears. Look at him, he’s completely out of his mind!”
We had some amazing paella with Cuban wine and B. C. talked politics. Every now and then he’d start hitting on Ebbie again and then flat out ask her if she wanted to meet him later for drinks. He started telling her how sexy she was and talking about her clothes and and hair. Ebbie was a modest loyal girl who would never do anything with another man while in a relationship, especially some salivating pervert hitting on her in front of her boyfriend. She was disgusted and irritated I wouldn’t say anything. I could have swatted the little twerp across the room, but it was more fun watching him futilely and desperately strike out trying to get her to even talk to him while she fumed at me, and the Colonel kept cackling like some bizarre twisted animal had just landed at our table. When we left the restaurant B. C. handed her his phone number.
“Call me and I’ll show you the town,” he said. “I’ve got a nice apartment at East 43rd.”
“That’s not happening,” she finally laughed, looking at the piece of paper like it was a piece of something else. I was grinning at him like, you idiot, figured it out yet? I should have said something anyway, for Ebbie’s sake, but knew that’s what he wanted me to do, and was curious how far he’d take it. Had he touched her I would’ve grabbed him by the throat.
“Go kill somebody,” the Colonel said to him. “You’re not a Scorpio, hell no!”
“Why didn’t you say something?” Ebbie said to me.
“You were doing fine,” I said. “Did you want me to hit him? He was too ridiculous to give him anything, it was more fun watching him make a fool of himself.”
“Did you hear the things he was saying?”
“I told you he was nuts,” the Colonel said. “A totally fucked and fried sex nut.”
We caught a cab down to NYU where Eddie Blackwell, Don Cherry and Leon Thomas were playing. They had friends sitting in and were blowing some very hip minimalist jazz, an improvisational jam, Blackwell sitting in dark glasses like the Godfather of Cool laying down an ultra smooth drum line. All the cats were laughing and having a good time, slipping and honking and jumping in whenever they felt like it, blissful children amusing themselves. After thirty minutes Ebbie said, “When are they going to start?”
The Colonel broke into maniacal laughter. “When are they going to start? When are they going to start! That’s the best thing I’ve ever heard!”
“Well, when are they?”
“They’ve been playing for half an hour! When are they gonna start!”
“They have? I thought they were just warming up.”
“Why would they warm up for half an hour?”
“I don’t know! That’s what it sounded like.”
“When are they gonna start!” the Colonel kept crying. “I’ve never heard anything better!”
After eating Thai we went down to the Strand to catch Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The Colonel was fascinated with the five musical notes bounced back and forth with the aliens, the whole idea we connected with them through sounds. When Dreyfuss flipped out and started obsessively building the sculpture of the dome where he’d seen the alien craft, the Colonel said: “That’s nothing, that’s me every day.” We came out humming the five notes, high on the rush of photography and effects, waiting on a corner for the light to change.
“In 1969 there’d be a mob of maniacs standing right here, screaming out of their minds. See that hotel window, sixth floor? Harold would buy gallons of mayonnaise and pour it on people on the streets. It’d be 96 degrees with people running down the sidewalks dripping mayonnaise.”
On our way to Emily Machulay’s apartment we rendezvoused with Gary Campbell. Emily was a tarot card reader studying hypnosis. She and her husband, another tenor player, had a tiny apartment in Brooklyn on the eighth floor. The elevator was down so we took the stairs. Emily had candles and incense going in the cramped efficiency, Sonny Rollins playing. She was short, heavy and beautiful with dark cow eyes, sweet spirited, spiritually intelligent and in touch with the light. She could only do one reading a night, she said, everything became clouded after that, so she laid out the cards for the Colonel. At the end of the reading, she said, “You’re in love with calamity,” and the Colonel cracked up. “Calamity, yes, that’s fantastic! God yes! Oh Lord,” he said. “You’re right. Nobody’s ever told me that, calamity. Any way to change it?”
“You have to transcend. Somehow you have to pay more attention and rise above it. Consult your spiritual guides.”
“Okay, now it’s my turn,” the Colonel said, standing in the middle of the room with his eyes closed doing blind Tai Chi. It was like he was feeling for a draft in the room. “I need to find it,” he said. “It’s right in here somewhere, yeah, flowing right through here, this is the energy flow, I’ve found it” he said, his hands in the current. “Do you feel it? Oh yeah, it’s strong actually, it’s flowing through something, wait a minute. It’s…” He picked up a pencil gingerly from the desk as if it might explode. “Quick,” he said to Emily. “Take this pencil into the bathroom,” and she jumped up and held it delicately, shaking nervous like an eight year old child asked to hold a snake. “Take it into the bathroom. Do not touch anything with the pencil. Whatever you do, don’t drop the pencil.”
“Okay,” she said breathlessly. “All right,” and she padded toward the bathroom, trembling like crazy, giggling with anticipation, walking on eggshells. When she was inside, she said, “Okay, I’m here, now what do I do?”
“Look out the window,” the Colonel said. “On the count of six I want you to look away from the window, and carefully, very carefully, place the pencil in the sink. Do not drop it!” the Colonel yelled and Emily screamed and giggled. “Okay, holding the pencil with your thumb and forefinger, deposit it slowly in the sink.”
“I’m…okay, I’m doing it, okay, okay, I did it. Oh God.”
“Is it wet?”
“There were a few drops of water…”
“Get out of there, quick! Get out! Get out!” Emily screamed hysterically and came flying back into the room with her hands on her face, giggling, jumping up and down running in place. “What is it! What’s going to happen!”
“All right,” the Colonel said. “I want you to go back in there and bring me the pencil.”
“I don’t want to go back in there! Do I have to? I’m scared.”
“You’ve got to. You can’t leave it in there; you’ve got to go get it.”
“No, please. Why?”
“I can’t tell you why, but you have to get it back or we’re in trouble. Big trouble.”
“Can you get it?”
“It has to be you. I didn’t put it in there so it has to be you.”
“Oh my God, I’m shaking,” she said. “Please, you do it, please, please, please.”
“Emily, if you don’t do it I don’t know what might happen. It has to be you.”
“Okay. Okay,” she said, reluctantly stepping toward the door where the candle flickered inside. “Oh my God, I’m…promise I’ll be okay…”
“You’ll be fine as long as this time you don’t look out the window. Whatever you do, don’t look out the window!”
“Why?” Her voice was trembling. “Don’t look out the window…all right…do I just pick it up and bring it back?”
“Tell me when you have it in your hand.”
“Okay, I’m about to….okay, I’ve….I’ve got it.”
“Don’t look out the window!” the Colonel screamed and Emily let out another blood curdling squeal and flew back into the room, tossing the pencil on the floor, jumping back from it like it was the living snake, covering her mouth and dancing.
The Colonel sat back with a beneficent smile, arms folded. “Amazing work,” he said. “You did it. I can’t thank you enough, honey, you’ve saved us, thank you. We’re okay now because you risked so much. You risked everything!” he said, cackling crazily.
“What’d I do?” she said, wiping happy tears from her eyes.
“You saved us from the worst possible fate. That was stunning. I really don’t know how to thank you. We’re eternally grateful for all you’ve done, sweetheart. You can give me a hand massage now.”
We were all laughing. Emily asked who wanted to be hypnotized. Ebbie volunteered
and sat on a stool and the hypnotist quietly induced her trance, talking Ebbie back into her childhood. She looked hypnotized but I didn’t believe it. Kids were ganging up on her out in the woods and playing games with her, but I wasn’t buying it, but I wasn’t going to tell her she was faking. Who knows, maybe she was under. I was next and was hoping to actually be hypnotized; I relaxed and let go and did everything I could to go under and let it take me, but when Emily told everyone I was there, I knew I wasn’t. Let’s have some fun, I thought, rolling my eyes up in my head, speaking in a trancelike voice and feeling their eyes on me. The Colonel kept gasping, “God, he’s gone, look at that…” but I wasn’t. I knew a little about a great grand-father in Tennessee named Treesdale, so I pretended to be him and they were all eating it out of my hand. I talked about the farm and my wife and children and a flood, my work as a builder, and talked about being “stove up” and having “the croup,” “taking a bromide,” any kind of old colorful language I could think of, figuring this was as harmless as the pencil in the sink. When I pretended to come out of it they were all staring at me as if they were hypnotized.
“What happened?” I said, rubbing my eyes.
“Really? You don’t remember?”
“I remember being back in Tennessee…”
“Really?” They kept staring at me like I was a ghost or had come back from the dead. I was emphatic that I was under and the Colonel kept gawking at me, going “You looked so
fucking out there, you were gone, man…”
They kept studying me, waiting for me to admit it was a hoax, but I kept up the charade,
a good acting exercise, I figured. Ebbie probably figured I was faking just as I figured she was, but we were all having fun with it. The Colonel kept asking me if I’d really been under, seriously, do you swear? I crossed my fingers and said I’d gone somewhere, all right, hell yes, and he looked at me again with that look like he wanted to believe It, because he loved other worldly things, they were his true reality, he’d had so many strange things really happen in his life, hell, half of them with me, and I knew he was afraid I was putting him on. Two thirds of what the Colonel said were true and a third was absolute bullshit, but I’d never been with another human being around which stranger things happened, incidents that he had no control over. Not even close.
In the morning we ran to the Museum of Modern Art, then spent the day strolling around
Manhattan, the city buzzing, getting close to Christmas, snow floating and sweeping around the streets, music jangling from stores in Times Square. We were in the city for five days. We’d heard a different jazz group and eaten Cuban, Indian, Thai or Ethiopian every night, were close to broke, and figured it was time to get back to Georgia. Before we left I ran across the street and found a beat up copy of The Sound And The Fury at a used bookstore for a couple of bucks. At the end of the coverless novel Faulkner had written, Chelsea Hotel, 1931, New York City. How fittingly strange to find this dreamlike cinematic Southern gothic tale of the Snopes family tucked away in a dark used New York bookstore, in the city where the Mississippi genius light years from the surreal rural culture he came from and wrote about, came to complete it. The paths the human spirit travels in and out of the body, crisscrosses, backtracks, the living dream like a film itself carrying its stories in trains and cars, asleep and awake, that wash up in the Great City and then are found by a young southern writer years later, like a puzzle piece
washed into a sidewalk crack. That frenetic nightmare of a blindingly brilliant book written fifty years ago haunted and made me proud, horrified and mystified me to be a southerner, had more life in it than any book that could be produced now or sold in any book store.
The next morning we took the car from the garage and started out of the city. The temperature was eighteen degrees and the wind was howling, whipping us all over the highway. The wind chill was eleven below.
On the New Jersey Turnpike the car started filling with fumes. You could see blue exhaust floating around inside like thin sluggish clouds and we were coughing and opening the windows for as long as we could stand it, which wasn’t long. Our faces were burning from the knife-cold, collars buttoned around our necks, and we were still breathing the damn fumes anyway. Our redneck mechanic hadn’t fixed anything.
“Maybe we should try some additives,” I said. “Clean out the engine.”
I’d been doing juice fasts and was on this “cleansing” kick, like that was the answer to
everything, make it “clean.”
“Couldn’t hurt,” the Colonel said, which wasn’t true at all. We bought a collection of gas
and oil treatments, a kind of smorgasbord of industrial waste, dumped the gas additives in the tank and opened the hood. The wind was swirling around and our hands were numb. I started to pour the oil treatment into the crankcase but it was so syrupy thick and viscous, almost solid, it hung in the air over the opening like some shiny metallic arm twisting and bending down, and the Colonel and I watched the wind whip it out flat all over the carburetor and engine, not even close to the oil tank. It spread over the engine like some grotesque plastic skin. It was so immaculately stupid, sick and funny the Colonel and I broke out laughing. We had the same appreciation for absurd things, situations that were idiotic and summed up the folly of expecting things to work in this manmade world, especially when they weren’t working to begin with, and this was the most ridiculous fucked up mess you’d ever seen.
“That ought to do it!” I said. “Take that.”
“Fantastic!” the Colonel said. “Couldn’t be more perfect.”
“Fuck it,” we said, slamming the hood.
“Another perfect day,” the Colonel said. “Everything’s perfect.”
Ebbie was in the backseat waiting and the Colonel pulled out the football. When we passed it it corkscrewed and took off, flew straight up like it had a mind of its own, then darted away fast from us like something or someone had kicked it twenty feet away.
“There it is!” the Colonel said. “The invisible whip! That’s it. That’s beautiful.”
“Let’s go, guys!” Ebbie screamed from the car. “You guys are nuts!”
“We’re not listening to her, are we, Ron?”
“That’s right, Colonel,” I said, passing it again; this was our running sideshow now.
“You better fucking listen to me!” Ebbie said. “Get your asses in here and let’s get going,
We were dying ourselves, the wind blinding us. We got in and started the car and this heavy-fumed smoke billowed in on us. We figured it’d clear in a minute when the gas additives started “cleansing,” and we crawled back on the turnpike with the windows half open, being kicked around like a kite, rolling them up and down every few seconds, choking on the noxious fumes. The oil additive laying all over, half smothering the engine smoked out of the hood and poured in on us along with whatever else was leaking already. The gas additive cocktail was making it worse. Every fifteen or twenty miles we’d pull over on the side of the highway, stumbling out on the grass coughing, stoned on fumes, hallucinating trying to catch our breath. We were choking and freezing to death and I noticed the car was losing power. We had enough money for gas and food to get home, maybe enough for a couple of dirt cheap motel rooms. None of us had credit or gas cards, we were on our own. We were fifty miles out of New York with eight-hundred and fifteen to go.
The third time we pulled over to fall out staggering around hacking, I knew this was going to kill us. We needed to do something drastic or we weren’t going to make it. In the movie Dr. No, I remembered, when the men with dogs were searching for Sean Connery and Ursulla Andress on the forbidden island, he cut hollow reeds and submerged in the river’s edge, breathing through them as the searchers walked by. I hadn’t forgotten that early low tech James Bond ingenuity. We needed breathing tubes. What the hell, it was better than choking to death on the side of the turnpike. I figured the Colonel, who was maddeningly practical as well as eccentric, would think this was insane and love it.
“You know those giant posters in grocery store windows?” I said. “We get three of them, roll them into tubes wrapping them with rubber bands, and breathe through them out the windows.”
“You’re out of your mind,” the Colonel said. “Breathing tubes? You’re completely nuts.”
“What else are we gonna do? It’ll work, come on, let’s find a grocery store.”
I had the Colonel going, every minute or so he’d start cackling, but I was dead serious. We found a super market and explained what we needed. They had extra posters they gave us, looking at us like we were from Mars, we bought a pack of rubber bands and put together three long white four foot breathing tubes and got back in the car. With the windows cracked an inch we stuck the tubes out the windows, like car snorkels. The Colonel was driving and I looked over at him, his giant brown corduroy coat stuffed up to his ears, breathing tube sticking forward in the wind, the lazy blue smoke floating around us in the car in slow moving plateaus like spirits. He was laughing into his tube with his eyes rolled at me. We were all laughing but if you didn’t breathe through your nose you were getting clear New Jersey Turnpike air, or something close to it. Every now and then we’d take a deep breath, pull our mouths off to say something quickly, then inhale again through our tubes. Looking around us cars were slowing down to gawk at us. Anyone that was anywhere near us stared as they tried to figure out what we were doing. They gaped as they went by and we slowed down going uphill. A dark-haired girl with a camera was snapping pictures. We were laughing at them, their faces were
better than anything. I could imagine what we looked like, an off-white Opel Kadet from Georgia with three four foot tubes sticking out the windows like antennae. Their faces alone were worth doing it, but we didn’t care what they thought, we weren’t choking or freezing, the damn things worked, and we were heading south, even if we did seem to be losing power and slowing down. Every now and then the Colonel pulled his mouth off and cackled, said or screamed out some wild insane chortle, turned and made eyes at somebody riding along next to us pointing and laughing, then stuck his mouth back on the tube.
“This is the best thing ever,” he said. “Look at this guy.”
Some degenerate looking character was riding along next to us pulling his hand back and
forth from his mouth like he was asking for a cigarette or a blowjob, grinning and weaving in on us. It was eerily like what the Colonel did onstage, pretending he was smoking a phantom joint. This lunatic had been summoned to us. He looked like a three day drunk, eyes glazed, howling and leering at us.
“What the fuck’s wrong with him?” I said.
“Just another crazy,” the Colonel said. “There’s one every twenty feet.”
“What’s that man doing?” Ebbie said.
“We’re not crazy,” the Colonel laughed. “Hell no! He’s crazy, not us.”
The man kept swerving along next to us until he got tired of going so slow, and roared off in his beat up old Impala, waving at us with a big drunken grin. Insane people are making fun of us now, I thought, it was a perfect day. Every time we’d start uphill we’d slow down a little more, and then pick up normal speed going downhill again. We had to downshift to third to make it up a few hills. Then we were downshifting to second to make it up some. We’d slow down to twenty-three miles an hour in second and barely make it over a hill with people gaping at us as they breezed by, semis and everybody on the road flying past us, some looking irritated as hell, blowing their horns, as if we were doing this just to fuck with everybody on the road; then we’d haul ass downhill again passing the same semis, baffled drivers looking down at our tubes sticking out, then they’d crawl past us again as we trudged up the next hill.
One of my Sabian astrological readings was: “ Able to transfer mind energy to machines.” The Colonel would go, “You’re the Car Coach, Ron, make us go now, you can do it! Coach the car, Ron! Do it, baby, there you go, hell yeah!” as we crept over another hill.
“I’ve gotta pee, can we stop,” Ebbie said.
“We’re not listening to her, are we, Ron!”
“That’s right, Colonel,” I said, both of us facing straight ahead like a couple of Nazi assholes.
“You better fucking listen to me! This is my fucking car, motherfuckers, I’ll leave your asses out here if you don’t stop right now!”
“I don’t hear anything, do you, Ron?”
“No, Colonel, nothing.”
“You hear me! Stop the fucking car or I’ll beat your asses!”
We were all laughing, it was a game and Ebbie knew it and was actually in on it with us,
one of the ways we entertained ourselves. Ebbie relished her role, though at times it would verge on serious.
“I think I’ll get off at the next exit to use the bathroom, Ron,” the Colonel said. “Not because anyone’s asking me to.”
“Just for ourselves, right, Colonel.”
The Colonel pulled off and in a few minutes we were back on the road again, me driving, all of us munching snacks between breaths through our tubes. The blue fumes still drifted in the car like inert cigarette smoke, withered arms and fingers sitting next to your face; if you breathed it you’d have to open the window and stick your head out to cough, clear your lungs and get back on your breathing tube.
“Nobody’d believe this,” I said.
“It’s better than anything. Get us going, Car Coach! Coach the goddamn car now, hell yeah! That’s it!“ the Colonel rocked back and forth pulling us up another long slow grade.
I noticed the same semi following us the last fifty miles. It was one of those “Humpin to Please” trucks with a camel on the side. It’d taken us about two hours to go that distance and we’d probably passed him after he’d passed us fifteen times. I figured he was trying to figure out what the hell we were up to, but he wasn’t making good time doing it. I couldn’t imagine anyone going as slow as us on purpose. We’d slow down to exactly twenty-three miles an hour going up the longest hills, then speed up to seventy-four downhill max if it was a nice steep drop, like a soap box derby car. Several times I had to downshift to first to get over a grade or two. I imagined first gear not working after a while and having to drive on the side of the highway in the emergency lane in reverse the rest of the way home, backing up the interstate at twenty-three miles an hour breathing through paper tubes. It’d take us a week to get to Georgia. I told this to the Colonel and he blew out a belly laugh into his tube, crying and fighting to get a breath, inhaling smoke and rolling down his window coughing and hacking to clear his lungs.
“That’s it!” he said. “We’ll back up all the way to Atlanta with these goddamn things.” We were hysterical and half drunk from the fumes we’d already breathed. It helped to pinch your nose when you could so you only mouth-breathed.
“That truck’s been following us ever since we started this,” I said.
About that time he started to pass us going uphill again, grinding up next to us, sitting there glowering at us. He was gaunt-looking with a rough black pirate’s beard.
“Go on by you motherfucker!” the Colonel said. “What the hell’s he doing?”
“Maybe he’s a breathing tube serial killer,” Ebbie said.
“He likes us, that’s for damn sure.”
“Maybe he’s an alien and thinks we are.”
The truck driver leaned across his seat and started waving his arms around. Another real nutcase, I thought. As strange as the Colonel was, he attracted the most legitimately touched human beings on the planet, and here was another one, even though the tubes were my idea. But the tubes would only have happened with the Colonel; they wouldn’t have happened with anyone else, ever, like ball lightning hitting the side of our car.
“What the hell do you want?” I mimed the trucker, waving my arms at him, but he just kept on with these wild arm gestures, looking like a half-starved clown in a bubble, like he was wired on some heavy duty trucker speed, yellow eyes bulged out and hollow.
“We’ve got to get away from this guy,” Ebbie said.
“Kind of hard to do at twenty-three miles an hour.”
He pulled in front of us so that as we slowed down we were right on his bumper. I downshifted to second and he slowly pulled away and we fought to get over the next hill. We picked up speed heading downhill again and passed him, him starting to wave his arms around again like a madman, honking his horn, jumping up and down like a monkey.
“Let’s just get off the highway and get away from this nut,” Ebbie said. “I’ve gotta pee
“We’re not listening to her, are we, Ron?”
“That’s right, Colonel,” I said, sitting up straight and stiff. “I didn’t hear a thing.”
“Stop it, you guys! This trucker’s giving me the creeps! I’m gonna pee on your heads if you don’t stop at the next exit.”
“I don’t know about anyone else in this car, but I’ve got to urinate,” I said maddeningly.
“Let’s stop so you can urinate, Ron,” the Colonel said formally.
“You’re gonna pay for this, Ron,” Ebbie said with a warning laugh. “See if you get any after this trip. I hold some cards here, buddy.”
“Is somebody talking?” the Colonel said.
“No, no one’s speaking,” I said.
“Yeah, you wait, buddy. Next time you want some, just say hello to your hand.”
As we started to pull off the stalking trucker pulled off with us. At the top of the ramp I kept crawling straight across and got back on the highway.
“Why’d you do that?” Ebbie said. “I don’t want to pee in the back seat, dammit!”
“I think someone said their knees belong to Dashiell Hammett,” the Colonel said.
“Come on, you guys, this isn’t funny.”
I pulled off at the next exit and we all used the restroom. When we got back on the highway there was no one in sight. After a few miles we started up another endless grade and I saw a semi in the rearview. No, I thought, it can’t be. As we slowed down to twenty-three mph the truck gained on us and started up beside us.
“Coach the fucking car, Ron, get us away from this maniac, he’s about to break me.”
“I’m trying,” I said, actually trying to feed my brain power into the engine with all my
might, even if just to get us over the next goddamn hill.
“Go, Ron, Go, Ron, Go Car Coach! Fuck yes!” the Colonel yelled, both of us leaning
forward, spurring and rocking us ahead. But the lunatic trucker came up and rolled down his window and started waving a piece of hose at us, yelling something about “Memphis” and “a bottle of tequila.” He was weaving all over the place but I couldn’t tell if he did it on purpose or wasn’t watching the road. I heard something about “a woman at a strip joint” and “a Buick Skylark,” then he almost hit us sideways; waving the damn piece of hose like it was some magic snake amulet, and Ebbie screamed: “Leave us the fuck alone you fucking lunatic!” which only made him more animated, so that he stuck the piece of hose halfway out the window like he was handing it to us and I thought, okay, that’s it, pulling over on the side of the highway, watching him drift and weave out of sight at the bottom of the hill. We decided to wait a while, then get off at the next exit and get something to eat. When we crawled off we didn’t see our friend, but there was a cheap motel with a Chinese restaurant inside. It was sleeting, and we were exhausted after making a few hundred miles in seven hours, so we checked into the Happy Landing motel somewhere below Baltimore with a Chinese family who barely spoke English, locking our precious breathing tubes in the trunk. There was a mix-up over our room because they thought we wanted three rooms, when we explained we wanted one they looked at us like we were perverts and started arguing and slamming the counter. We took showers and played cards all night, listening to the mixed rain and sleet. Every time I touched Ebbie she’d slap my hand away.
“Nope, get away from me.”
“You’ve done it now, Ron!” the Colonel said sternly, after he’d goaded me into it.
“He’s not the only one, pal, you wait.”
“My belt says you will!” the Colonel said, sticking his finger in her face. “If there’s trouble, lock me in my car! You ain’t getting’ nothing but a pineapple with a hole in it from now on, Ron. And you ain’t getting nothing but a knee no more, young lady. Me and the Car Coach got work to do! The goddamn car coach!” he cackled.
“Screw both your asses; I ought to leave you both here. You give me any more lip I will.”
“Ooooooooh! Are you gonna take that, Ron? Are you gonna let her talk to you that way! I don’t really care for that tone of voice.”
“You’re right, Colonel, I won’t have that kind of insubordination.”
“You guys are so full of it, I swear,” and we were all laughing.
We split a few Chinese dishes in the morning and were back on the road, eager for another day of tube breathing while averaging thirty-seven mph. Only five-hundred and eighty-two miles to go. We thought about more additives, maybe STP, but knew damn well they wouldn’t fix anything. The engine was self-destructing and at any time could just grind down, blow up, and we’d be sitting on the side of road until that damn trucker came along again.
But somehow we made it. We drove seventeen solid hours, collecting more onlookers
and stalkers, people scowling at us as they blew past us, getting stopped by a cop who laughed at us and wished us luck. He could have written us a ticket for not maintaining the minimum speed limit, he said, but felt sorry for us.
“Ain’t never seen anything like that,” he said. “And I’ve seen about everything there is to see out here.” He snapped a picture of us.
“I’m sick of this fucking car!” Ebbie said as we got going again. “When we get fifty miles
from Atlanta I’m calling a wrecker and having it towed in!”
The Colonel started cackling again, pounding the seat, choking on fumes and sticking his head all the way out it screaming: “Drive eight-hundred miles and just before you get home have it towed in! That’s the best thing I’ve ever heard! Don’t drive it home, hell no, have it towed in!”
“I am, I swear to God!”
“Don’t you want to get home first?”
“I’m sick of it. I can’t take it anymore!”
“That’s perfect. We could pitch a tent outside Atlanta and have it towed to a shop.”
We were all delirious from the stress of going up and down these hills through six states into Georgia never knowing if the car would make it over the next rise, breathing through these damn tubes, watching new people go by, kids waving at us, people not looking at us at all because they were scared of us and didn’t want to make eye contact. There were more of those now than the ones that stared at us. We’d ride for thirty minutes without talking, just staring straight ahead, then glance at each other and all of us would crack up again. Imagining backing the car up the side of the Interstate at twenty-three miles an hour kept this ripple of internal laughter going in me, so I tried not to think about it. It could’ve come to that.
“You’re doing it, Car Coach, yeah baby, fuck yeah!” the Colonel yelled every time we slowed down, trudging up another grade. We both leaned forward and rocked and I strained my brain again, controlling the pistons and carburetor, exerting my will on this broken down piece of shit. “Coach the car, baby! Coach it! Coach it! Push that goddamn car with your mind, Ron, yeah, yeah!”
Riding shotgun the Colonel smoked another cigarette, taking puffs blowing it out through the tube, blowing smoke rings in the car that floated lazily with the engine fumes. A hundred and fifty miles from Atlanta at 3 A. M. we stopped at a closed Pure station with a couple of pumps, Ebbie getting out to use the restroom. The Colonel and I watched her walk into the dark side of the station out of the arc light.
“Wouldn’t it be perfect if when she came out we weren’t here,” the Colonel said. “We just totally disappeared. Nobody ever saw us again, we were just gone.”
“All they ever found were three breathing tubes sitting here.”
“And one shoe,” the Colonel said. “Oh God, we ought to do it. We’re blowing it if we don’t do it. We’re completely out of our minds if we don’t do it.”