His name is Paul Jones Johnson. Now, out here in the boonies, I know too many Pauls, too many Jones’s, and too many Johnsons. So called him P. Jones, which was pronounced “Pigeon.”
This kid was the son of two penny-poor Okies that had too much gin on a moonless night. Tough. Spits often, with toothpick and comb; acts as if wolves had raised him. Real scrawny with a lot to prove, fluffing his feathers and standing tall-chest all puffed. Look at him the wrong way and his sailor mouth will leave you feel’in all salty in the head. He walks around strutt’in his bony body like a blistered bruiser just outta the ring. Deep sockets with pooling depth in hollowed eyes. Spit fire and flair, yet . . . truth is, he is nothing but talk. Kid’s a real hoot. All talk with pigeon brains.
My given name on the other hand, well, it ain’t no better. Born in ’39, Leopold Stovall. Nice and fancy right? Like some European Aristo-cat.Naturally I go by Lee. Yet somehow, my parents must have had some smog in their noggin and never thought to say the name out loud. Try it. Just get them laughs outta the way now.
Eh’ that’s life I guess. Can’t be mad at my folks, Ma’s long dead, and Pa is hooked to some life machine that makes more noise than him. I’ve tried to go by Moe, but it don’t stick. Eh, tough luck.
Pigeon always called the shots. It began with two tiny eyes and a senile smile, some time between abstract thought and dense delirium; my good pal had an idea.
A cool summer in a place I call Nowheresville, where crickets serenade the stars on lonely nights. For a land called the “Show Me” State, I’ve never seen noth’in. Nothing happens here, and it never will. The idea sprang from bored inebriation. Like usual. We ain’t no criminal, just beatnik misfits. Stupid-n-lucky. Hell, I’d never have the courage sober.
The score lay on the edge of town, a quaint little convenience store. The owner was this tight old man that had too much money to bother with, and no good in him. Why would we ever feel bad? So there we were. It happened real fast, you see. Before I knew it, there was a brick in my hand, broken glass and butter-fingers frantically stuffing pockets full with coins, cash and anything I could get a hold of. Robbing a store, what a rush! Man, What. A. Rush!
Fast motions, quick breaths, and screaming silence. Since the broken window, only thing I heard I knew was utter mayhem.
Then Pigeon hollered at me.
It hit me. No alarm! No pigs! No rush!
After that realization . . . we took our damn time. I waltzed down the aisles getting anything and everything my poor-boy taste buds could fancy: salami, beans, corn, Altoids, and too much beer to carry in one trip.We real cool, cloud 9 and more –simply heaven in a store.
Then I saw it.
I’d hit the jackpot: Auntie Mae’s cider donuts.
My Ma got me these for my birthday a few springs back, and this was the only joint that had them. Stacked tall in the corner were bright pink boxes, the slogan “these donuts make ya go nuts.” And boy did they. I still remember the taste. They were the crème de la crème. I quickly jacked box after box of this delicious delicacy. Without hesitation I ripped open the colorful cardboard and sunk my sweet tooth into memories of better days long gone. Mmmmmmmm, you gotta try em!Nothing ever tasted so good.
And just like that, lick’in my lips, we were on the run. Our set of wheels was a souped-up, pale blue, rust bucket. The Chevy hummed, and sputtered in exhaustion, as the acceleration overwhelmed our naïve sense of immortality. “Punch it!” I snickered in folly. We crushed a trail of ten-cent cans of 24 oz. Tall- Boys under the spinning rubber as we bounded out scot-free. Radio chirped some catchy doo-wop single bout soul mates, and heartbreak. Dazed and determined Pigeon slugged a beer, popped the clutch and tapped on the wheel paying more attention to the beat than the road.
I stuck my head out the window, and screamed just because I could.
Blurred lines, and more drink propelled the getaway. Our chrome-plated chariot flew down the dashed-yellow divide, which was the only thing reminding us we were still on a road. The speedometer jacked up faster than my heart rate. We were schitzos with no sedatives. Up on everything, and down for anything. These lands are too slow for us anyway. Pigeon dodged coyotes–n-critters that’d wake up in the night; although secretly he wanted to hit ‘em straight on for the thrill. As we raced on the outskirts of nowhere, row after row of endless rolling cornfields began to fade.
Two thuds. Da-dunk. Da- dunk –signified railroad tracks, meaning we were nearing our destination. Clusters of decrepit redbrick establishments with brand-new neon signs welcomed our arrival to this no-name city. We pulled through an isolated alley all nonchalantly and whatnot.
Then right in front of us some figure lingered in the darkness. Front and center, our high beams brought to life some figure lingering in the darkness. Then there he was, a woeful black bum that was rotting among the filth. The man just stood there, wobbly.
The show was about to begin.
Pigeon revved the engine and viciously spewed out comment bout the man’s skin color followed by a bottle that smashed near the poor fellow’s head. In the headlights the shards twinkled down as if falling stars. Uneasy, I sat in my seat, guiltily watching the show.
Like a wide- eyed raccoon, the hobo high-tailed it, frantically fleeing; knocking over trashcans, as Pigeon took dead-aim nipping his heals with the metal bumper.
“God-damnit, stop it!” I shrieked like a little girl.
I felt more guilty than amused: “What’s wrong with you! God-dammit, stop!” Pidge didn’t.
A thud sent the bum flying in the air. He hit off the wall like a deflated basketball.
Goddammit, goddammit, goddammit.
A little sin-split smirk cracked on his face that soon burst with laughter. He held his guts like they’d fall out; the car screeched to a stop.
“Leave the poor man alone you bastard!” I protested, “You know bett’r.”
Pigeon looked at me bewildered, and slapped me upside the head. He just looked at me blankly; he knew I was full of shit. Eh, he was probably right.
The hobo inched himself up the wall looking broken. I threw a half-eaten box of Auntie Mae’s Cider Donuts at him.
My good deed for the day.
It’s not like me to stick up for some colored boy. Hell, I probably woulda done the same thing, but I was feeling mighty blessed-n-generous on this fine evening. If not for this heist I would be sleeping in the same alley. No use spooking the bum anymore. It was just good fun.
Pidge always had the last word. “You get your filth outta this town or I’ll hang you so high your mammy will see you from miles away!”
We pulled the Chevy out of the alley, leaving the poor guy creaking and whimpering like an ungreased machine. He disappeared with a pink box in the rearview mirror. At least he has a sweet ending to this bitterness.
I glanced over at my friend. Pidge always got some sorta high from these interactions; like he got his kicks from stuff like this. I’d never understand, but it’s not my place to comment. Sometimes I think I know him. Sometimes I don’t. Friendship makes you overlook things, it really didn’t matter, we ain’t that different in the scheme-a-things. Pidge knows best anyway.
Few blocks later we found the spot. We were late for our brilliant half-assed alibi. Two dames awaited us. Still on the run, if you even call it running.
Headlights dimmed. Music off. Cigs, coins, keys. Slicked hair back, rolled up flannel sleeves. Doors closed. Loot in trunk all locked up tight. The street lamp hissed above, shrouding us in an orange tint. Placed a cig behind my ear, and one in my mouth. Sorta Drunk, we sloshed and stumbled, fumbling to get our lives rolling. Clumsily the keys dropped to the ground under the tire. I bent down, but realized I was all bent in the head. Blood rushed upside down, I keeled over all topsy-turvy. Flustered I shot up, calm, composed, and too tipsy.
“Real smooth, slick. Which betty you want tonight?”
“One with the legs. I guess.”
“You guess? Guess with convict’un, man.”
There was this mutual understanding; no choice really. He usually got the pick regardless, but I appreciated the selfless offer. He liked razzing me anyway. Finally the last bottle caps popped and broke the tension; bouncing off the cement making a hell of a racket. Ting . . .ting . . . ting.We got our last licks of liquid luck. Piss-warm suds went down my gullet. Pigeon didn’t need it the same way I did.
Pigeon went to the curb, bent down with both hands on his knees and threw up for longer than I had ever seen anyone throw up. He wiped his mouth on his shirt, belched loudly with pride, and just like that, we were off again, drunkenly swimming in the night.
Raymond’s joint was no beauty, but a good hideout. Just a used-up gin mill push’n on strong past its heyday. But man-oh-man did it do its job. No diamond to a sober eye, a fool’s oasis –only real paradise between these dull corn-hills and Kansas City.
Galaxies of flash- flickering bright white bulbs looked down on us like stars exploding in an infinite neon sky. A smoky thick threshold towered over as we wondered through the drunken haze. My pupils dilated, adjusting to the dark red iridescent shadows that engulfed the venue. Timid but slick, I slid through the door out of the cavernous depths of night.
Salty sailors and slim-suit slobs swarmed the bar like flies addicted to the bright beauty of their electric executioner. Zap. Zap. Zap. Dreams –aspirations would plummet; fried, shriveled, wasted and forgotten. The place was humid, where your clothes stick to your skin and you excitedly wait for the moment the oscillating fan will kiss your sweet body with hint of cold air. But I loved it. Altruistic addicts drowned their sorrows in this watering hole. Walls filled with silhouettes that laughed to the timeless tune of tomfoolery and ancient youth.
Bombastic solos exploded out of brilliant brass beasts; salutations smooth vibrations! The music sounded as if spoken from a foreign tongue. I’d never experienced this on the prairie. Sharp, calculated cymbals crashed, ricocheting from a four-armed drummer whose energy cut through the room like a locomotive across the prairie plains. Some rare canary in heels was draped over a baby grand, singing her song for all the gawking boozy-bastards to honk at her beckoning.
We drank in the pure sensory intoxication. Just wow-o-wow! Too much!
Crowds of seedy sullen faces passed by, like empty billboards, quickly forgotten while speeding on the interstate-in a long, long journey between today and tomorrow. Lost in a dream, a trance, consumed by the toxic atmosphere. Pigeon noticed them first. These girls, well, they was just a little Saturday-night fun; nothing more. He rang them earlier in the day for a date to making it seem like we’d been here all along.
The girls were at the bar minding their own business with some greasy, misguided, guidos catcalling and rubbin’ up real close. Can’t blame any ol’ john doe for trying in a place like this. Hell, I’d know folks to kiss their own sis if they had enough in ‘em. You take what you can get round these parts. Out here in the sticks it’s easy to forget there’s a whole big world out there.
Now I didn’t care to mingle, just leave me jiving to the music. But no, it was sadly cut short by the tight grip from the guiding hand of my date; a real mundane jane. She greeted me with a puff of smoke that tasted like rubbing alcohol and soot. She dragged me through this labyrinth towards a booth. Pigeon kissed his gal’s hands all suave like a movie star. I played along, all according to plan.
The booth was lit by a tiny flame, which danced center table to the music with no rhyme or reason. Dame in arm, we swung down into the confines and comfort of our cheap velvet walls. Suddenly, I felt my palm squeezed to signify longing in the entrapping gaze of my date’s brown doe eyes. She glanced across the booth, piercing the scene with her precise intentions. Simply a mind numbing incantation; her trim skirt hid long legs that brushed against mine. I shyly pulled away as our gang of fools sloppily packed into the booth like jolly drunk sardines. Distracted I ordered two rounds and welcomed the madness; it washed over me like a baptism in sin.
A puddle of three-week-old whiskey clung to the table like sweet stale molasses. Pigeon carefully ground down some of his pocket pills, containing a multitude of uppers and downers; a whole mix of instant emotion. With gumption he carved out thin long lines of parallel white powder; each rest pristine, like an untouched mound of glistening snow. Methodically he went one by one. Each time his eyes would light up like a pinball machine. Slowly his hands shook while reforming the rows. Perfection mixed with excited childlike joy. He scratched his nose and smirked.
" Need to stop playing with my food.”
One long, exhausting, brain numbing snort.Ssssssssssssssssssnifffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffff. His head cocked back as if he licked his finger and stuck it in a socket. Electric whiplash.
"Yum, yum, yummmm! Well Good-God-damn!"
I think they were bennys. I can’t really remember them anymore. Pidge has introduced me to all kinds of things, there is just no use trying to remember their names. Pidge says it ruins the fun when you know what gonna happen next. I sorta agree or maybe I’m just hooked on the little shits. I’m not complaining. The table went round inhaling the winter wonderland. What a celebration for such a successful night. Pigeon’s gal said some nonsense ‘bout too many of these making our liver sour when mixed with alcohol. Some doctor’s warning. ‘Nuff said. He hushed her real fast while placing another few pills on the table. Silly nonsense.
“Doc’s orders,” he laughed.
Now things are gonna become a little fuzzy, cause honestly, it’s too much to even recall. The conversation sped up. All cylinders were firing, full speed ahead. No direction, no target in sight, just real real fast. Out of nowhere “the fuck’n Reds are coming for us man, just you wait! Radioactive Nu-cu-lar submarines out there off the coast of Rhode Island!” Fists smashed down the table, followed by a swift slap to the jaw in response. Small grins. Eyes wide. “Don’t say such nonsense!”
Two longs slugs later and I can’t keep up with any of this.
“You fool, it’s those microwaves that are going to kill us before them. Them things are making our brains become mush and then splat all over the wall! Trust me. They have these invisible gamma rays that cut right through us. You see, one time I put an egg in one of ‘em, and”– POP, a bottle popped like magic to our amazement. When I began to intervene and interject I noticed my jaw didn’t want to move. It just hung off my face like it wanted no more of the nonsense. “Yoou knooooo”
My head hit the table like a Japanese Zero. All I heard were muffled voices talking gibberish from above, like when you’re at the kids table trying to listen into adult’s intellect’ul conversation.
The world shook. My face was sticky, the skin practically ripped of having grown really attached to that dried whiskey on the table. Someone rocked me real hard. I wanted to sleep some more. Just wasn’t fair. Things were ringing loud, but I opened my eyes and saw no trumpets in sight. As my eyes focused the place things didn’t make too much sense. I’ve found myself in these kinds of situations before; I’m a know-nothing, easy come easy go, just floating with the current. But things were really off. For a place so alive, Raymond’s was a ghost town. No more canary, no dames, no sailors, no flies, no nothing.
Only Pigeon? Yeah must be. I can trust Pidge? I can always trust Pidge. He grabbed me by the waist and slung me over his shoulder. Managed to say “Gerrroff meee! Pffffffff” before I heaved on the ground and a little on his denim.
“Punk! You are clean’in these in the morning; promise you that! Now we gotta go”
My body bobbing, I had a tantrum, swinging my body around like a fish outta of water. No rhyme or reason could make sense of this commotion. Momentum and lots of it; he broke through the door and the cool night air felt like an icy spinal tap. The alley looked different now . . . probably cause I was upside down.
“If you make me miss it! I’m taking your share of the loot!”
Confused I squirmed and flailed free sending us both tumbling down to the ground. Pigeon just got up and pulled me by the hand. Like a marionette, I followed kicking my seasick legs struggling to pick a direction to go in. Streetlights hissed above with that same orange tint, but this time it was loud, screaming at me. There was nothing silent about night. We rounded a corner and I gained my bearings. I took a swig of water from the “colored” water fountain, cause I needed anything in me at that point. Pigeon seemed so determined, just dragged me along. I gathered my wits after a few stumbles that knocked some sense in me. I learned to walk again, and Pigeon let go of me.
Little establishments passed by; Dollie Dixie Curb Mart, Carter’s Drugs, and Rexell’s. “Wh-Wherrre we going?” I stuttered. Then I saw the courthouse, with white columns tall and proud, shining bright in the moon. It sobered me up real fast.
The courthouse was an institution. Round these parts it was held in high esteem, just like the church but for different ceremonies. This being the dead of night, I knew where we were going; it didn’t take the crowd to get the idea of why we were going here. On the other side sat a tree, a big old oak tree, that’s been there for such a long time, I reckon it’s always been there. The voices began getting louder, and my steps were heavier. Looking over at Pigeon, his face was excited. He pulled me up a few steps to go round the building. He was muttering something; something I dreaded to hear said out loud, “That coon boy, they took him! Ah-Hah–we free, we free, we free. My oh my.” Over and over.
It was painful to hear, I couldn’t stomach. My heart dropped like a lead balloon, cause there he was. Right there in a sea of whites, there he was, all hung up, a lifeless slack black rag.
“We fucking missed it!”
Pidge gave me a powerful shove that was more vindictive than playful. I tried my best to hide a tear that managed to break the levee and stain my face. Pidge looked at me in disgust.
Pigeon walked off to get a better view as I slowly followed from behind.
I stood there in that white crowd with Pigeon marveling at the sight. The pink box was over his head, with a donut shoved in mouth. I wonder how it tasted. I already knew how good it tasted. That poor, poor man.