My Southern Legitimacy Statement: On my mother’s side, the Wilson family helped found the Presbyterian Church in South Carolina. Our holiday salad is made of iceberg lettuce, Miracle Whip, pineapple rings, and a maraschino cherry. My father was born in Marfa, Texas. He does not talk about it.
**Ya’ll! Steven reminded me about how he got his start right here on the Mule back about 20 years ago. You can imagine how spectacular that makes me feel. I’m going to dig around in the site backups from 2002-2003 and see if I can’t find those poems.
The Wagon Wheel Motor Inn isn’t much. It’s got hot sheets for the daring and desperate. And it’s got you. That is, you’ve been staying for a bit. The stay was supposed to be for a week, maybe two, but now you’re about to pay your third month’s rent. You figure you’ve landed in worse pastures, though none come to mind. The Wagon Wheel is a two-story, U-shaped construction built of dung-hued cinder blocks with a crumbly parking lot running snug up the middle. All the rooms have wavy blackout curtains, and then there’s the Wagon Wheel itself— a tall, neon-lined signpost by the Old 99 highway— a great big spoked wooden wheel that looks like it might have been kitschy once, even a landmark. Now it’s broken. The motel’s owners are out-of-town, and relatives run the office. There’s no maid service to speak of. If it’s mid-October, your birthday came and went. Dead leaves shuffle across the parking lot. You must be twenty-nine years old. Strictly speaking, a room at the Wagon Wheel isn’t the lowliest way to live: You’ve got an unbroken door with a working chain lock. You’ve got a shower with fitful spurts of hot water. No dresser, but all your belongings still fit into your old canvas seabag. You have a Color TV with Free HBO. And the fun never stops: if you feed quarters in a slot by the bedframe, some internal mechanism gives you a shaky massage.
From your room on the second balcony, you can hear traffic motoring past. At certain times, certain hours, you can also hear the wet gargle of the skinny river that runs nearby, behind the motel. The river flows down from the hills up north and carries all sorts of rich peoples’ junk in it—odd stuff you fish from the banks sometimes, like an empty briefcase with working metal snaps or a waterlogged scarf that looks like it was cashmere once. Is it still? Sometimes you clamber down to its banks and just wait for items to come sailing down, all those rich trinkets that seed the valley below with a dream of how the other half lives.
Most mornings, you wake up to someone popping their hood down in the parking lot—always someone taking bits and pieces out of their bygone heap while increasingly talkative onlookers hang around giving their two cents about what’s wrong and how to fix it. Maybe it’s the blower motor. Maybe just a fuse. The gang hangs around stating disparate opinions and drinking cold beers from individual ice-packed coolers. BYOB. Shadows get long. In the afternoon, everyone heads up to a guy named Cam’s room for a party. Cam is the de-facto leader of your bunch. He used to be a stuntman in Hollywood, so he says, a long time ago.
Another one of the gang at the Wagon Wheel is a skinny old man whom everyone calls Neighbor— when you greet him, you say, “Hey Neighbor,” and he says, “Hey Partner” in return. You think his real name might be John, Jeff, or something— it doesn’t matter. His original name is something he’s left behind. If you ask him how old he is, Neighbor just says, “Almost young again.” Neighbor has stayed at the Wagon Wheel longer than anyone. He’s underwater with medical bills he doesn’t want to talk about. He’s got a long white beard and rosacea on his cheeks. The popular joke is that someone sticks an air hose up his ass around Christmastime and blows him up into jolly old Saint Nick. He’s got a girlfriend named Lucy who shares his room. Lucy is younger than Neighbor but no spring chicken herself. She has big wet eyes like a cartoon cat. Lucy says she was the Playboy Magazine Centerfold of June 1987 and is truthful enough to be believed. She must look different now. You wonder if she had those great big knockers before she got so big everywhere else.
Then there is a guy they call Flattop Mike. He’s in his forties, beefy, and divorced. He’s got beady eyes and looks like 1956 George Jones—the Possum. Flattop Mike has a nine-year-old daughter across town, but a judge won’t let him see her until he catches up with what he owes. On weekends he bartends at something called the Casbah. College kids go slumming there. Mike lets you in on a little secret: they dump all their empty bottles and cans straight in the dumpster every Sunday night. He guesses it’s probably ten garbage bags full. Cans and bottles go for 10 cents each at the recycling. A full garbage bag of cans and bottles redeems for about twenty bucks. That’s some good, easy cash. But, by the time you get to the Casbah very late on Sunday night, a ready battalion of tweakers are already huddled around in the dark, waiting. You could do something, but you don’t. You have your pride; you’re not going to fight anyone for empties.
Everyone needs money at the Wagon Wheel. Everyone needs a haircut and a shave. You work out a hustle with Neighbor— at night, he and Lucy go around the neighborhood tagging nonsense on storefront windows. Then, in the morning, you follow their path from place to place, offering your services in graffiti removal. “Cheap,” you say. You use acetone and a razor blade. It works so well that you consider printing up business cards claiming you’re “licensed and bonded.” But then a cop catches Neighbor in the act and hauls him off to jail while Lucy manages to escape. Now Neighbor’s got a court date coming, and Lucy seems to blame you.
You find yourself spending more and more time with Cam. He’s always making plans. Cam wears unbuttoned Tommy Bahama shirts like he was on a tropical vacation. He’s got mirrored aviator sunglasses and a peroxide-blonde ponytail pinched at the back of his head. Everyone laughs when Cam tells a joke. Right now, he’s telling about the old days in Tinseltown. He says, “There’s just two kinds of people crazy enough to jump in front of a moving car.” Pause. “Suicides and stuntmen.” Everyone laughs.
Cam gestures his big knotty hands. He’s a teacher. He has the voice of ten thousand unfiltered cigarettes. “You have to roll correctly, see? When you hit the hood— roll with the flow of the moving object and not against it. It’s bigger than you. You’ll never stop it. You got to do what all that metal wants you to do.”
“Sure, Cam, sure,” you tell him, outside his room, leaning against the soft give of the metal balcony, bolts tugging at the bit.
“All you do is to roll right on and just slide right off. It’s just simple physics,” he says. “Gravity and motion. And padding certain parts of your body.”
Big laughs from everyone. It’s not what he says; it’s how he says it. Every so often, he flashes a toothy smile. Cam’s teeth are crooked and yellow and match his sun-browned face.
Now you’re in the parking lot helping flush the brakes on Cam’s ‘79 Nova SS. Most of the guys are down there helping. The front axle sits up on a cinderblock with the mag wheel removed. The shiny wheels don’t match how the front quarter panel is crunched and rusted. Cam talks about “big fish” and “small fish.” He talks about “reaching out for the golden ring” and “hovering over the drain.” He’s in the same boat as you— needs money. He talks about his old stuntman days again, about diving on cars.
“You got to hit front shoulder down, and elbows tucked, locked n’ loaded, then pivot—roll with it! See here, see here! Throw your legs!” He demonstrates a couple of times, even if he can’t make his body roll anymore. He’s older than he thinks he is. When he pushes against his Nova, the axle teeters on the cinderblock.
“Second thing,” says Cam, “You need a car that’s turning right on a red—so they’re slowing down a bit but not stopping. You gotta be in the crosswalk, and they’re turning into you rather than coming straight at you—so then you’ve got a better chance of rolling over the hood, not getting your face braked on. And if you’ve never seen a face that got braked on, you don’t want to see a face that got braked on. The guys all laugh some more. He wants us to know that he’s seen it happen.
But you ask, “Why do you need a car turning right on a red? In Hollywood? Doing stunts on a movie?”
“Son,” he says plainly, “I ain’t teaching you this for no damn Hollywood movie.”
The next day Cam is back down in the parking lot wrenching on his Nova, still flushing those brakes, when the chassis rocks smooth off the cinderblock, and the whole thing comes down hard on his foot. Everybody jumps in to get him free. Cam escapes, but his foot swells pink and purple like a ripe corpse. A few days pass where Cam lies around moping while everyone tells him to go to the hospital, but Cam won’t go. Then suddenly he’s up and about and wearing a bright red ski boot, fully fastened, that looks like it came from Goodwill.
“It’s just a little old hairline fracture,” Cam tells everyone. “Damned fifth metatarsal. Why pay the doctor for that? For a foot cast and pain pills? Shoot. I can get pain pills from anyone.”
Some weeks pass. It’s not like you’re not trying; you just can’t get work. Cam gets the Nova running, and it seems a celebration is due. He’s still got that ski boot on, and both of you have been drinking all day. He’s been grinding Percocet like they were Tic-Tacs. The problem is that you’re out of beer. There’s a licensed place about a mile away down the Old 99.
“Get in, kid,” Cam says. “I’m driving.”
“Maybe you let me do the driving,” you say.
“Hey Neighbor! You come too!”
You pull open the door and push the bucket seat forward, and old bony Neighbor clambers in, then you crawl in, and Neighbor has his knobby knees scrunched together in the back. The bucket seat swallows your shoulders as Cam drops his boot down on the gas, and you spin out of the parking lot while Lucy and Flattop Mike are left watching you go.
The highway is flat but winding. There’s a hard curve, then another. Plenty of afternoon traffic. Cam drives one-handed, and he’s weaving through cars. Pretty quick he’s pushing eighty. The open ashtray shakes, old scrunched butts bouncing out. Cam leans and spits out the window—a fine yellow loogie that whips far behind. He won’t let up on his plan. He’s yelling sideways over the blowing wind about how falling on cars has been going on since the invention of the automobile. “Back in the twenties, they called them floppers.”
“And if you get hurt, even better—they have all kinds of minimum payouts for things. You know what loss of a finger is worth?”
Cam jerks the wheel without warning. A horn blares from behind, followed by a jacked-up truck sprinting past in the next lane.
Cam plugs the cigarette lighter into the dash as he paws his shirt pocket for a Camel soft pack. “Five thousand per joint—like, pinky finger, tarsal, metatarsal. A whole finger is fifteen K mi-ni-mum! You know about the loss of vision gets you?”
“A hundred grand!”
The clicker clicks out, and Cam lights his smoke. He pushes the glowing red coil in your direction, but you wave it back. Cam blows smoke that splits and rolls in great swirls across the windshield before being sucked out of the windows.
Remembering something, you spin around, and there’s Neighbor, calm in the backseat. He stares forward, maybe a little pale, with the wind flipping the corners of his white beard and thin white hair.
Cam pushes down hard on the pedal. Now you pass that jacked-up truck. Cam throws a hand signal out the window, hits the horn, whoops, and hollers.
“How much for a busted arm?” you yell.
“Twenty thou for the forearm, forty for the humerus.”
“Depends if it’s at the cervical or lumbar, but definitely over a mill. You can always fake being paralyzed.”
“What about death?”
“Hell, kid. Death is worth a fortune, done right.”
A squat building comes into view just as Cam pulls off and slides into the hot asphalt parking lot of Beemer’s Liquor Stop. You come here often enough. Cam shoves some bills in your hands and tells you what to get. Neighbor reaches up, clicks the bucket seat forward, and pulls himself out. Neighbor’s a tall man. He gets up and starts walking and doesn’t bother with goodbye.
“Hey! Neighbor! Hey! Where you goin’?” Cam shouts.
“Getting out,” Neighbor says. He limps a little as he goes like he’s got a side ache.
“I wonder who pissed in his cornflakes?” Cam scoffs. The truth is that you don’t know either.
Rent is due, and you’re out of ideas. So the universe delivers. There’s an ad on Craigslist asking volunteers for a paid medical study at the University Hospital. Anyone who has nothing from a list of medical conditions can apply. That’s good news— you’re a candidate. But when you tell the guys in the parking lot, Cam looks disappointed.
“Small potatoes, man,” Cam says. “All you wanna do is hover over the drain.”
“It pays, and I could use it.”
“Quit hovering over the drain. Reach up for the golden ring, get it?”
“After I pay rent. Yeah, sure.”
“Here, I’m trying to get you a big payout. Life-changing money. None of this dollar and change bullshit.”
“Cam,” you say. “I’m just not crazy enough to jump in front of a moving car.”
“But you’ll volunteer for a medical study you know nothing about?”
Considering this, you move back to your little cooler. You’re all out of beer.
“You don’t got to do a thing,” Cam says. “Just step out in front.”
The University Hospital is a shiny glass castle. Wearing your cleanest shirt, you ride the elevator to the ninth floor, shaking every hand you meet. You repeat names two times like you read in Dale Carnegie. You smile wide but keep your lips shut, hiding your messed-up teeth. When you get accepted to the study, it feels like your first win in a long time. A freckle-faced nurse with pretty brown hair brings you into a sterile room filled with beds, curtains, and machines. She smells like strawberry oatmeal. The next thing you know, you’re lying on a crisp hospital bed wearing a soft paper gown. Not bad. The nurse returns, and you get her name— it’s Mellie. Mellie, the freckle-faced, world’s most beautiful nurse. She doesn’t seem to think you’re such a piece of shit. Who knows how these things work? You feel possibility. Maybe she’ll stop by sometime when no one else is around. You picture secret shared moments while she presses little cups with wire sensors all over your forehead and body. That tickles, you say. Tee-hee. She gives you a pen and asks you to sign one little final consent form, then she sticks an itty-bitty needle in your arm and asks if you feel alright. You say you feel fine.
Later, you wake up with a hurt in your stomach like you’d swallowed a knife. Or chugged Drano. It’s some severe and acute pain. You’re hot, burning up. There’s a bright light overhead and mask-covered faces all around. You jump; the machine goes nuts.
“Hold him down,” someone says.
Soft hands produce a vomit bowl, and you heave up fast and hard. The first one is chunky. You sweat green beads like you were pushing poison through your skin. It doesn’t stop. Doctors come and go, always with clipboards, asking the same questions while poking your sad middle, which feels bloated and ripe to pop. Your throat burns from puke acid. Every time you think that you’re dry-heaved out more comes. You cough up foamy, acidic bile the electric yellow color of Mountain Dew at thirty-minute intervals, preceded each time by a spinning fit of full-tilt vertigo, on and on until a point when you can conceptualize dying. At first, you’re scared and want to live, but the sick won’t stop. Dying sounds like relief, at least. Maybe you’ve felt this sick all your life; maybe this is just the physical form.
Eventually, without dreams, you slip off into the black.
When you wake up, you discover you were in that bed for three days. An IV is plugged in your arm, and a narcotic warmth flows in your veins. They gave you the sickness; then they gave the cure. The ward mom hands over a net profit, after-taxes check for two hundred and fifty-seven dollars, which feels far less than enough. That nurse you liked rolls you out of the hospital in a wheelchair while you worry you might have said something too familiar in your delirium. She takes you to the sidewalk and leaves you without the chair without much of a goodbye.
So what next? You take public transit back to the Wagon Wheel Motel, wondering if anyone missed you, but instead find out that while you were gone, Neighbor died in his sleep. “Gut cancer,” Lucy says, wrecked. “Cost too much to treat it.”
Considering this, you go to Cam’s room and knock.
“Finally,” he says. “You’ve come to your senses.”
Then you start making plans for real.
Cam sketches the street corner with a black marker on a yellow pad like an eager coach mapping out a trick play for the varsity squad. “Here is where you come from, here is where you jump, here is where it hits you.”
You’ve heard head wounds are slow to heal. Flattop Mike is on the plan now, and then Lucy too. You all work out percentages. Cam has an ambulance driver in his pocket— he’ll be first on the scene. Cam’s got some guys from the tent camp at the corner who will be witnesses. Cam has an attorney, too. The attorney won’t do anything illegal but won’t have to as long as everyone plays their cards right. He’s a real bulldog, this attorney. He eats insurance adjusters for breakfast. The EMT will file a report claiming all kinds of injuries—something that could translate to chronic, unrepairable pain—an endless payout.
“Let’s not get greedy,” you say.
“You say that now, and you’ll kick yourself later,” says Cam. “It’s always the bet you didn’t make, you know?”
At times you question, why me? What made me the chosen one? Why doesn’t Flattop Mike go out and jump in front of a bus? Why doesn’t Cam?
Answer: Because you are young and limber and haven’t settled any insurance claims before.
Comes the day. The morning air is chill and smells of wet leaves and exhaust. Lucy and Flattop Mike will play the distraction at the corner of Old 99 and Fremont Street. You can feel your heart banging beneath your ribs. Walking past the Wagon Wheel’s lot onto the sidewalk, you break into a jog, hurrying toward the intersection to get it all done, dressed in sweatpants, to die, maybe. There is a feeling like you’re naked in public, vulnerable, or too visible. You pass Lucy and Flattop Mike on the corner. Lucy sneaks you a look, and you feel a squeeze in your throat. You think about Neighbor. You think about how the world goes on without us.
Flattop Mike tugs at Lucy’s arm, and they start across the crosswalk.
Cam is signaling from half a block down Fremont Street. He said he would pick something nice, with insurance, that rode low and had a long, sloping hood. Maybe a Mazda MX.
How will you know, Cam?
He said he’d have a feeling.
Cam wears a long blue terry-cloth bathrobe over his fancy-print shirt, and his big red ski boot sticks out underneath the robe. He thinks he’s incognito, but he’s not. He’s not. Those cars look heavy, and your bones feel like chalk. The asphalt looks like sandpaper. You think about all the dirty diapers your mother changed. You’re sorry about that. You wish you could give her back all that wasted energy and effort. If nothing else, you need to call her more. Cam whistles short and high with two fingers in his mouth. He motions towards a silvery two-door sedan speeding towards the corner. The sedan slows but doesn’t stop. In the crosswalk, Flattop Mike yells, “MARCO!” and Lucy yells, “POLO!” And Flattop Mike yells, “MARCO!” and Lucy pulls her jersey shirt up from the bottom so that her great big pale and under-sunned globes drop unabashed into the light of day. “POLO!” She shrieks, divine, alive, shaking her nakedness at the world. Somebody honks. The car almost rounds the corner. That river that flows down from the hills up north— the one you followed to get here— you feel it take you.
And you go.
You flop forward like it was your destiny to do so, catching a glimpse of the driver as you spin— his salt-and-pepper beard—his face turned to Lucy, his mouth agape in a description of surprise.
The hit knocks your wind out, and the windshield flings you up like a skeeball tossed to heaven from the table’s gentle jump. Gravity lets go, and it’s like falling in reverse. A ringing silence holds on—a single note held in perpetuity, as you spin, as you catch flashes of the road, the sidewalk, the grass, the Wagon Wheel sign— as up and up you go—all of it getting further and further away. This is where the river went once it went past the place you were.
And you feel great joy in your motion as up and up you go. You think of the big money, the life-changing money— the money you’ll land in like a cushion to break the fall. Finally, finally. Your days of worry are through. And now you’re flying over the neighborhood, the bridges, and the city. Now you taste cold metallic clouds, electric ozone on your tongue. For the first time, your lungs open, truly open, and you suck in the clean, untapped air of the upper atmosphere. Why? Why did you wait so long to get where you needed to go?
Then, inertia sapped, you begin your pilgrimage back to Earth.