ROADBLOCK

 

Cpl. Wayne Hapletz of the New York State National Guard saw the bus approaching. Bert was watching the vid in the Jeep and Freddie was taking a crap, but it was his turn anyway. He heaved his butt up from the kerosene heater, slung his rifle over his shoulder, and walked out to the roadblock. There hadn’t been westbound traffic for nearly an hour. Seemed like people were scared. They’d better be.

Normally Wayne liked Guard call-ups. They were like vacations, freed for days or even a couple of weeks from the Roto-Rooter. Wayne was a Roto-Rooter man. He hated it, though he had to admit that it got the job done. They’d tried to upgrade the technology, tested ultra-sound, lasers, genetically engineered sludge-eaters: nothing matched the good old Roto-Rooter. But he was sick of the stench and the jerks who clogged their toilets with rags or dead pets, and the wisecracks when he told people what he did. He wanted to run the Roto-Rooter straight up the customers.

So whenever they called up the Guard, he breathed a sigh. He could be with buddies. He could be a hero, more or less. He could imagine shooting people. But here they were in the middle of nowhere freezing their asses off, for what? The terrorists were going to drive down the freeway? He knew that right now Roy the insurance agent was humping his wife Charlene. They always did that when he went on duty. He’d found a strange necktie in bed, and she’d admitted the affair without a blush. Enraged, he’d asked her why she’d been unfaithful, and she said it was because Roy wasn’t fat, didn’t still have acne at the age of twenty-nine, and didn’t stink.

He appreciated her honesty, but honesty had its drawbacks. It made him want to kill. Not her or Roy: he’d get in trouble for that. But he longed for an excuse to blow off heads in the line of duty. Wayne served out his days with death in his heart.

He waved the bus to a stop. What kinda junk heap was this? Bright blue, ancient, with a big cartoon turtle painted on the front. He walked to the driver’s window. Funny-looking  old guy: long gray hair in a ponytail, sunglasses at midnight. Rock band, maybe?

The driver cracked the window. Wayne mumbled his questions. “Where you come from? See anything strange?”

“Just when I look in the mirror,” the driver joked.

Wayne gave him a hard stare. He flashed his flashlight into the bus, hoping for some twitch he could mistake for a threat and spurt hot lead. Everything was quiet. If they were terrorists they’d stay quiet, just like this. Maybe that was evidence enough. He squinted to see the sleeping figures. Suddenly, there was a flash of headlights, eastbound. He blinked, and in his dreamless eyes he saw the figures awake, dancing to drums. He’d read a book once about witches, not old green crones, but young bare-breasted witches, lean young bucks, and stringy old goats with eyes blazing in the bonfire’s glare. Maddened with lust, the drummers pressed them faster and faster, and Wayne had a sudden, uncontrollable urge to kill them all.

But he had lived his life controlling his uncontrollable urges. So instead of a burst from his M26 tearing trumpet holes in the sleepers, Wayne blinked, belched, and cursed himself for a coward. “Checking all passengers. They’ll have to get out.”

“Hey, you know, we’re a tour bus outta Boston. They’re all asleep.”

“We got orders.” Wayne prided himself on being a guy who had orders. You could always find somebody glad to give you an order.

“So are you guys Monsanto?” the driver asked. Fuck you asking me questions, Wayne thought. But his pride overcame his irritation.

“Monsanto doesn’t operate National Guard. They do state police. We’re not state, we’re nationalized, asshole.” Wayne thought asshole would end the conversation. But the driver didn’t seem to hear it.

“Then you’re Disney.”

“Yeh, we’re Disney,” Wayne said with sullen pride. “What about it?”

“Hey, we are too. Check out the turtle, bro.”

Wayne glanced at the happy galloping turtle painted on the hood. What did he mean by bro? Wayne remembered cop movies where niggers called each other bro. Was this old fart calling him a nigger? He started to raise his weapon.

“Hey, they give you neat uniforms. You look great. Bet you score with the chicks. They cream for guys with guns.” Wayne’s face went slack. He’d never thought of that possibility. “Look what I gotta wear.” The driver indicated his head-band. “We’re like, man, the Old Hippie Theme Trip. Like way back in the Sixties?”

“We read that in school,” Wayne mumbled, mesmerized by the creaming chick.

“Yeh, they give us the costume and we gotta learn all the slang like groovy and pigs, and say fuck a lot.” But Wayne saw only the chick — a hippie chick in a crash pad, like he’d seen in a movie, with long copper hair, and her lips were open, whispering Wayne. . . He jerked his head sharply to fend off the dream.

“Hey, got any acid?” the driver asked.

“Huh?” Wayne heard himself grunt. He was supposed to be a fearsome bastard, but the driver kept asking questions. Once he’d had a job as a phone solicitor, and they were taught that people who were asked a question couldn’t help responding. One day some lady had turned the tables and started asking him questions. He’d thought she was interested in him, and then she’d said, “You’re pathetic.” He’d sat in his cubicle motionless until his supervisor came up and fired him. He jerked his head.

“That’s what we’re sposed to say,” the old guy said, “like to cops and stuff. Like the cop is really a pusher, cause like, man, the System sucks, dig? Gives a thrill to the tourists. They’re all like squares—librarians, cashiers, insurance agents.” Wayne saw Roy’s butt plowing deep. “Got any acid?” the driver repeated, gesturing for Wayne to play along.

“No,” replied Wayne helplessly.

“Hey, you’re cool,” the old driver smiled. “You ever do acting?” Wayne shook his head. In fact, he’d been in a play in high school, but he’d forgotten his lines and stood there burning with shame while the other actors ad libbed until he walked into the wings and just kept walking. “Well so help me out here. They’ll all piss their pants. Drug bust, okay? I mean we’re all working for the same dudes.”

Wayne knew he was losing control, but he felt the hippie chick’s lips on his as the old satyr loomed over them leering. Wayne knew what he had to do: step back two paces, raise his M26, scream out orders for instant obedience, motherfucker. But the driver was telling him his lines. It was a drug bust and he was a narc but he was really a head himself and a head was a hippie or a hippie was a head— Wayne was confused. “Don’t sweat it,” the driver said, “I’ll feed you your lines.”

Before he could respond the old guy turned toward the back of the bus, his voice a shouted whisper, “Hey, folks, we got trouble! Drug bust! The pigs are all over! Anything illegal, ditch it!” He prompted Wayne.

“Hey, got any acid?” Wayne mumbled.

“How much you want?” the driver asked, then whispered to Wayne, “A dozen tabs. See, it’s a pay-off.”

“A dozen tabs.” And now he was back in high school, and he did remember his lines, and Linda Stitts the class slut was looking at him hard as her copper hair fell over her pointy inexcusable breasts.

Smoky reached over on the dashboard, picked up a bus schedule, ripped off a strip, then tore it into confetti. “Okay, Wayne,” the driver said, “you take these on an empty stomach, and man, are you gonna trip, it’s so far out, and Morningstar gives these wild blow jobs, man, she’s lickin’ her lips for that cannon you got there. You better be loaded cause she takes it deep!” Wayne took the tabs in his quivering hand. “Swallow it, Wayne. Have a nice trip.” Wayne obeyed, the driver waved, and the bus rolled away. The confetti was nothing more than a bus schedule, but now it exuded the sweet funk of Morningstar.

Smoky looked over his shoulder toward Tim, but Tim was asleep. Best thing about this fascist state, he mused, it’s really fucked up. He too had once been a phone solicitor, and that’s where he’d learned his people skills. He’d had that special gift for holding a prospect like a deep-sea fisherman playing a marlin too big for the test line, weaving a conversation that had no punctuation marks. When he was named for the third straight month as the record-breaking salesman of Quadramatic Adjustable Beds, relieving elderly couples of sizable amounts of their incomes, he quit cold turkey. He realized that he was too dangerous.

Something else gave him that uncanny capacity to talk himself out of edgy situations. Shadow had taught him peyote, and though he hadn’t made that voyage for many years, he could tune in when he needed to. He’d never met anyone else for whom peyote had the effect it had on him. Shadow had said that LSD was like calling God and getting a phone machine, while peyote was a living soul telling you what you’d damned well better hear. But he saw no totem animals, felt no polymorphous oneness with the wallpaper. For him it had produced an uncanny knack for being inside other people, whether surfing on Shadow’s tumultuous ecstasy or wandering in Wayne’s pathetic Walmart aisles. It led him into the alleyways of the other’s heart, and Wayne’s alleyways were very dark. He had been inside Wayne so deeply that he had to run for the exit as the bus pulled out. How did he even know the kid’s name was Wayne?

From the back of the bus, the voices of the elderly couple sitting bolt upright on the rear bench, cut through the silence. “They think we’re Bonnie and Clyde. Bonnie and Clyde, the robbers,” said Mr. Quackenbush.

“Hear that?” said Mrs. Quackenbush. “He’s nuts.”

“Bank robbers. I wasn’t even born. My mother talked about’em. They were famous. They didn’t need an appointment, they’d just walk in and kill you.”

Smoky drove on, accelerating with a mighty wheeze of the engine to outdistance his karma. This was a lot heavier than he’d expected. Toward morning, he flicked the windowglass vid. Two imbeciles, male and female, in perfect synchronicity:

CRAZY NEWS, ROSALIE. A NEW YORK NATIONAL GUARDSMAN WAS APPREHENDED WHILE SITTING ON AN I-90 OVERPASS URINATING ON PASSING TRUCKS. HE CLAIMED TO BE SAVING AMERICA.

HAROLD, ARE WE MAKING ALL THIS UP?

As Wayne popped the confetti into his mouth and began to chew, he saw the bus pull out. At once he knew he’d been conned. He was about to spit out the paper and blast away, but Freddie came out of the porta-potty, so he swallowed it.

Half an hour later, he began to feel lightheaded. He thought about going to the porta-potty, but it seemed further away than it had been before, shimmering with an inner light. Its door gaped wide, like a mouth.

Wayne squinted as the porta-potty’s face flushed with an opulent iridescence. Its vent grill caught a glitter from the blinking hazard light and stared back at him, a hungry black eye fixed on its prey. The blinks became a heartbeat, and the wind rose up with the shriek of a gap-toothed giant. Wayne saw a tiny figure running westward into the freeway’s blackness, arms waving, flapping, trying to fly, and realized that distant panicked dwarf was himself.

He was fleeing the ravening maw of the toothy devouring crapper. And suddenly he felt a surge of strength like what they say you get from that energy drink. The heartbeat was his own, his legs extended like tree trunks, and he was some ancient stilt-walking arthropod loping across the plain, miles at a stride. This wasn’t real tripping, he knew in the Wayne-speck of his mind, because then the copper-haired hippie chick would be down upon him, bold-breasted and succulent.

In the distance he saw a freeway sign, a verdant green field against the blackness, illumined by the high beams of his frantic eyes. JUNCTION HWY 21 SOUTH, it declared in the voice of a hollow god. Wayne was there at its foot. He felt his hands and the soles of his feet turn viscous, sluggish, and with slow sucking progress he inched his way up the steel pole, then out to the furthest reach of the crossbeam.

As he stared eastward into the dim beginnings of dawn, he could see the aperture between sky and earth, a sliver of blue, a blazing rainbow bridge, and the distant figure of Morningstar.

Below, a convoy of big rigs on their dark night journey approached his perch, bearing sealed containers of death for entombment in that subterranean Nevada treasure house holding all of America’s toxins. In an instant he knew what must be done. A hero doesn’t stop to think, he just knows. As the convoy rolled underneath, ignoring the puny roadblock, Wayne pissed down on the monstrous eighteen-wheelers.

This was no common urination. It came in torrents, unstoppable, inexhaustible. The trucks moved into a monsoon and swerved drunkenly as the yellow tsunami struck. For a moment Wayne feared that he might drain, dehydrate, but now he felt plugged into a primal aquifer sluicing down to scrub the concrete arteries clean with its antiseptic reek.

Within minutes, troopers arrived in squad cars, tanks and helicopters to protect the plutonium convoy from terrorist onslaught. After repeated megaphone warnings, interpreted by Wayne as praise of his heroism, Sgt. Dickie Rodriguez of the NY State Special Forces put one armor-piercing slug perfectly between the eyes of Cpl. Wayne Hapletz. He died at his moment of highest bliss, in the hippie chick’s fierce embrace.

 

(a chapter from REALISTS)

 

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