The Mysterious Tale of How I Shouted “Wrong-Eyed Jesus!”
A true story by Jim White.
Thanks to Jim White for this post (Luaka Bop © 1997 Warner Bros.)
It was that age you get before you can drive but after you start messing up. About fifteen, fifteen and a half. That’s how old I was when all this happened. It was at the same time that those drugs had hit my town like a black panic. I’d gotten involved and was even dealing a little bit. Just the week before this kid I knew named Thatch had died of an overdose. He was shooting this powdered speed called green T, which turned out to be angel dust cured in radiator fluid. Deadly. Among my friends who were dead, one or two were claimed by the occasional fatal teenage car wreck, but mostly it was those drugs that wiped their names from the book of life.
For a couple of days after Thatch’s o.d. I’d had this crazy ache of a premonition shifting around back there in the shadows of my mind, hissing out at me, telling me how I was next in line for the cemetery. This bad feeling wormholed its way through the gray matter of my thoughts making me feel all scattered and edgy for a while, but eventually the shadow passed and the ache subsided until my mind settled back into its usual abnormal shape.
Anyway, it was a night just after that. I was hitch-hiking home from a pick-up at this dealer’s house way over east when a brownish-colored Plymouth Duster jerked itself to a halt on my behalf, nearly getting rear-ended in the process. I guess I shoulda wondered why anyone would stop so short like that, risk their car and everything for some dumb kid standing by the side of the road, but it was late and I was just happy to get a ride so quick.
The car had Alabama tags and was like its name—dusty—probably from riding backroads near one of them hick towns our in the sticks like Arab or Two Egg. I jumped in and told this big dirt farmer guy driving where I was headed, and then almost fainted when he said he had business right near there. This was nothing short of a minor miracle because, with my family living way our in God’s country, a good eighteen miles from town proper, I usually had to snag three or four rides, then hoof it the last mile or so home. In years past, often as not I’d catch a lift from sailors headed to this Navy base our near my house, but it was all bur shut down now, with nothing on it but a few broken-down airplanes and an old V.A. hospital, so the good rides home were harder to come by.
Even though he didn’t have much of a military look about him, I asked that dirt farmer if he was going out there to the base, and he studied me for a moment, squinted like he was working out some kinda mathematical problem, then told me yes he was. He slipped the car in gear, craned his head this way and that, like he was trying to get his bearings, then remarked how he usually came into town another way and was a little turned around. He asked me to point out how best to get there from here, so I showed him the back way through town, along the old Frisco Railway Yards.
We got to talking and my first impression of him was that he just picked me up to have someone to jabber with, but before too long he was wanting to know more than just the normal stuff people ask—your name and where you go to school—asking
questions like whose house I was just at, how come I was out so late, and was I a runaway, and if you even half-listened you could hear something dark and worrying hiding back there behind his words. It was like when you feel a storm coming on before you can see it and you get that dark, wild feeling inside. That’s how I all of a sudden felt … like my premonition had found a vehicle in his voice and was suddenly barreling out toward me from the shadows at some fearsome velocity.
Right away I set to searching the horizon in my head, looking for telltale signs of where it might spring forth from. It didn’t take too long before it hit me—all the questions about who I was and where I’d been, the out-of-state tags, the coincidence of him going way out by my house where nobody ever went—he was a cop … or more precisely, a narc in an unmarked car. I’d heard they used Alabama tags to get the jump on you. Now I understood that with all his chit-chat he was just greasing the skids for some kind of entrapment.
I pieced it together in my mind. He’d probably seen me jumping the fence behind that dealer’s house and guessed I was holding, which I was—to the tune of those five dime bags I had hid down in my underwear. He’d hustled around the block and caught up with me just as I’d hit the main road. So it was a set-up, and as you might imagine, I wasn’t too thrilled about landing myself smack in the middle of it. Of course, at this point there wasn’t a whole hell of a lot I could do about it, being that we were cruising along at thirty-five mph in this narc’s own personal holding cell. I was smart enough not to let on to having figured out any of this, and just kept small talk going as I directed him on towards the west side. Conversation drifted this way and that and then things got dicey as we sat at that last red light at the end of the shut-down downtown area.
“Not a damn thing to do in this city, is there?” the narc said, glancing around at all the darkened facades.
“Yes sir, it’s pretty dull all right.”
“Boredom. You know what I do to ward off the boredom of life… ?” he said, watching me out the corner of his eye.
“No sir, I don’t.”
“I get high.” He was fishing now, waiting for me to take the bait and offer him some of my dope. “You like to get high, boy?”
Time to put my best halo on. “No sir, I stay away from all that. Not so much for me as for my mama’s sake. She’s sick with a bad heart and don’t need any more trouble than she’s already got.”
“Uh-huh, well, you don’t mind if I have me a smoke, do you?” He held a joint up in the air, then popped it in his mouth.
“It’s your car … you do what you want.” He fired up and I tried not to stare, but I mean, there he was breaking the law himself and all the while trying to bust me. What a mixed-up world.
The light changed to green and he fell silent as he smoked. God knows what goes on in a narc’s mind as he works out his traps, but brother, while that time passed I was busy wracking my brain, trying to figure some way to wriggle out of this mess. I’d already told him where I was going, so I couldn’t make up some story and ask to be let out because it might look suspicious, like I had sniffed him out. It crossed my mind to try to ease the baggies out the window when he wasn’t looking and chuck ’em, but they were stuffed down in my underwear and hard to get at. He’d see me digging around down there and before you could say ”bang'” I’d be another involuntary guest of the state up to the Pea Farm. Hell, they might even give me time in Camp Five. Brother, I’d heard the stories and wanted no part of that place.
In the end, all I figured I could do was bide my time until he slowed down enough for me to catch him unawares, then jump out of the car and run like hell. Trouble was if we didn’t catch a red light pretty soon here it was a straight shot to this lonely stretch of two-lane blacktop that ran straight as an arrow out the west side of town, on through the paper mill woods, and then along’ the backside of that Navy base. On maps it was called Nine Mile Road, but since it was the perfect place for kids to race muscle cars on the weekend, most everyone just called it “The Speedway.” I knew once we hit The Speedway there was no turning back, so I was straining to come up with some escape plan but quick. You can see how my mind was racing, bracing itself because pretty soon here deep piles of shit were gonna be hitting fans all over the face of creation, but in the blink of an eye the whole situation got turned upside down.
“You know what really gets me high, boy?” He let that question hang there. “Sex.” He was sort of tickling the hair on his forearm as he steered that Duster with one hand. “I like some nice sex … how about you? You like sex, boy?”
The way he turned and looked at me said it all—that sort of sleepy, mean-eyed leer, like he knew some kind of a secret about me that I didn’t know myself. I realized all in one leap that not only was he not a narc, not only was he a queer, but he was one of them bad kind of queers, the ones who’ll hurt you if you don’t give ’em what they want. The whole thing made my head spin around. It was like one of those tricks of physics where the magician jerks the table cloth away and leaves all the dishes sitting perfectly in place. I mean, he spoke a few words and suddenly I realized that everything I’d been thinking about him was just dead wrong, but strangely the quality of bad feeling those original thoughts inspired was left perfectly intact.
“I’m only thirteen years old, sir,” I told him, lying about my age, hoping that maybe he’d think me too young to be of any use to him. “So I don’t know nothing about any sex.” That part was true enough. I was one of those imploded, shy kids who girls shunned like the smell of death. I did the drugs to forget the hurt of being that way.
“Thirteen? My, you’re big for your age. You sure you don’t know nothing about sex?”
The traffic light up ahead blinked from yellow to red and I collected myself, getting ready to bolt when the moment presented itself, but when we started to slow down, like he’d suddenly read my mind and knew what I was fixing to do, he punched the gas pedal and blew through the light, laughing to himself as he did.
“Red light, red light. Boo-hoo-hoo. I got better things to do … than wait for you,” he sort of sing-sang to himself as he took a big hit off that joint. “You sure you don’t want some of this?” He waved the joint in my face.
By then it wasn’t just the premonition pressing down on me, every molecule of my being was shouting for me to get the hell out of that car. Since he wasn’t a cop, I figured it didn’t much matter if I acted suspicious or not, so I told him no I didn’t want any of that, and then put this act on like I’d forgotten something back at my friend’s house and asked him if he’d mind letting me out so I could go back.
There was a long pause. He didn’t look my way or nod his head or say a word, and he sure as hell didn’t stop. Instead he took one last toke, tossed the roach out the window, then reached over and turned on the radio, messing with the knob until he found a song that suited him. When I asked him, hey can you hear me mister, he turned and gave me this tight little grin, then exhaled a cloud of smoke in my face. He laid his eyes back on the highway and began to whistle along with that song and by then it was clear he was some kind of fountain of darkness, and I could feel his spirit pouring out and swelling up all around me like flesh blowing up around a splintered bone.
‘Course, I’d heard that old saying, I’d rather get cigarettes in prison than flowers in the cemetery,” so I snuck a look around the front seat, to see if there wasn’t something I might could hit him with, but there wasn’t, at least nothing that would have hurt enough to make him stop the car. Besides, he had at least ninety pounds on me and looked mean as the thorny backside of hell. I’d fought my father only a month or so before and got the living cat piss beat out of me, and this redneck seemed about twice again my old man’s size. I wished Christ he’d stop that whistling because it was starting to eat hole in my brain, but then when he did stop things only worse.
“You know, I got me some books back yonder in the trunk. They show you all about sex. We could look at ’em … together. Out in the woods or something.”
Books in the trunk. The Speedway hung before us, a dark taut ribbon strung through the paper mill woods. On either side of the road were narrow shoulders framed by the silhouettes of endless rows of planted pines overrun with kudzu and black as midnight pitch. There wasn’t nothing else to the picture, no streetlights, no houses, no other cars passing, nothing.
To make matters all the more rosy, the premonition started whispering this stellar blueprint for the rest of the night inside my ear. First of course I’d get to see those books in the trunk—they’d probably be right next to the rope and shovel. Then I’d be violated in unspeakable ways and murdered. Next my body would be dragged to a shallow grave not far off some trail in these woods, where this big farmer would plant me in the freshly turned earth like some seed of his ill will and, shovelful by shovelful, the stars and sky and everything else, save the blackness of the grave, would disappear from my sight until alls that was left of me would be a new and fine layer of dust on this goddamned dirt farmer’s shit-colored Duster as he cruised on back to Alabama, whistling long with his goddamned radio, lost in the stone cold wild blue yonder of his dark purpose.
We were picking up speed now, as the lights of that last west side gas station grew dim behind us. Pretty soon he’d make his move—wait ‘til we were far enough away from town, then turn off on some fire trail in the middle of nowhere. With nowhere for the thirteen-year-old kid to run and cry out but dark lonely woods and tangles of weeds. That hard-packed oyster shell shoulder would hurt like hell to land on if I was to jump now. I asked him again real politely if he’d please just let me out.