Back To Bethlehem
I grabbed the bottle of Mescal and as I turned around to hand it to him. His eyes locked on mine in the rearview mirror. Where there's one gun there may be two. One thought crossed my mind. I'm toast. "Isn't she a beauty"? he asked, knowing I'd just seen the gun. It was written all over my face, colour now drained. Jimmy went on. "I got 'er last Christmas. A gift from the old man". As he unscrewed the cap of the Mescal bottle he pondered his last statement. And added "Only thing he ever gave me 'cept Friday night shitkickings. Never did like those much". As he said this he tossed the cap over his shoulder and into Queenie's backseat. For a brief moment I thought I saw regret in those black eyes. Those pools of black.
"That's fucked up, we just give cards". I immediately wished I hadn't said that and waited for a reaction. There was none. Just "Here, try this". He handed me the bottle and I took the first of my many shots during the course of our journey. Ever the teacher and concerned about my high, Jimmy instructed me as I was drinking. "You're gonna need to keep your beer handy in case you need a chaser. Bubb, that shit's gonna burn going all the way down. Trust me. So don't take too big of a drink until you get used to this stuff. Okay"?
Ever since the introduction of the orange, Jimmy had taken to calling me Bubb. I corrected him the first time he said it but now I'm too stoned to care so I let it ride. And Jimmy was a little too late with the warning. I was handling it surprisingly well until it hit my stomach. If I was in a Western movie this would be a gut-shot wound. I thought I was going to vomit but didn't. I opened my door and slowly swung around into the open air, careful of my cuts and bruises. Jimmy followed suit and opened his door and then stretched his six-foot something frame on Queenie's hood. I was on my hands and knees. I wished for porcelain.
The first time I ever got drunk was on an uncle's dandelion wine. After two bottles I found myself worshipping the porcelain altar. I've loved it's coolness, calming my burning forehead. The canyon air was cool but not cool enough. I swallowed hard and managed to keep everything in. A swig of my cold beer set the ship right again.
"Man, that's good hash. That hill over there looks like it's on fire". Jimmy pointed to the western skyline as he coolly said this. I followed his gaze and then studied him for a moment. He looked rough and road weary for his twenty-five years. A quick, bright scar above his right eye gave his twisted smile a sinister edge. I looked up over his shoulder again at the hill. Not only did it look on fire, it was on fire. I could see the wisps of smoke growing larger as we looked on. We were starting to lose light. The sun started hiding behind the canyon walls, casting thin shadows of light here and there. It had started to rain harder. We climbed back into the car. I was feeling much better now. I filled up the bowl of the orange and set flame to it. As I did, Uriah Heep's Rainbow Demon blasted forth unannounced from Queenie's radio. It sent chills up my spine. Jimmy howled along and this only intensified the feeling. Time to go.
The road beckons. So does the canyon. These sudden rain storms can kill you if you're not used to canyon driving. Especially if you're headed for the coast. The slightest miscalculation could cost you big time. Although I've driven this highway many times since my first meeting with Jimmy I still find certain stretches of the highway harrowing. I trusted Jimmy but put all my money on Queenie. Jimmy told me she was a sixty-three Wildcat and she could hold on to anything. Even the side of a mountain. I'm now hoping that's true because I'm hanging on for dear life as we careen around corners too tight for any car to make at these speeds.
Queenie's amazing traction is small consolation as I look down out of my passenger side's window and see Hell's Gate far below. Believe me, when you're driving around with Jimmy 'Longneck', the passenger seat is not the place to be. To make matters worse, the radio reception is getting better and Jimmy's now driving and playing air drums to Jerry Shirley's drum intro on Humble Pie's I'm Ready from their live recording at the Fillmore East. "I saw them play this one in Philly last year". From that moment on I was in awe of Jimmy. Like the big brother I never had. Jimmy had stopped his drumming. He looked down at the speedometer and continued. "I even went on a drinking binge with John Bonham one night in Pittsburgh and nobody ever remembers drinking with 'Bonzo' … but I outlasted him! He was drinking straight vodka so every second glass of mine was water".
Don't eat that, Elmer. Four simple words my father whispered to me when he, my younger brother and I were sitting around the kitchen table one morning listening to an uncle recounting one of his World War Two adventures. Every so often my father would look up from his newspaper as Uncle told his story complete with sound effects and animated hand gestures. He was separated from his unit and surrounded by German soldiers. He started throwing frozen potatoes at them after he had exhausted his supply of ammo and grenades. My brother sat transfixed with his mouth agape. I feared for him; hoping no fly would land there anytime soon.
I'm relieved when I finally hear the call letters of the radio station. It's a Seattle station that we're locking in on and it won't be too long now until we hit the valley. We still have to pass through the tunnels. Four American marines on leave died in the China Bar tunnel last year. An eight car pile-up, strange eye-witness accounts of heavy fog, ghosts, strange lights and plenty of carnage. Fuck I hate tunnels.
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