ITN wasn’t going to win any awards for journalism. Our most controversial and important article in the last year had been on the subject of the university’s landscaping. Specifically: Were the hedges out of control? Not that I hadn’t tried. My articles were hard-hitting; they exposed what was going on behind the scenes, where no one really wanted to look. For example: During one homecoming celebration, I slipped the Dean of Students some acid and showed his latent homosexual tendencies when he—voluntarily—dressed up like Marilyn Monroe and humped the county sheriff. Of course, that one didn’t make it into the paper. The editor said it was too risqué, that the dean would probably shut us down. Of course, I then suggested we use it as blackmail leverage to get more funding, but, once again, the pansies on the editorial board backed down.
Still, they knew I was the only one on staff who wasn’t doing their job just to pad their résumé. I cared. I knew what good media practices could do. I wanted to be like the guys who busted Nixon. I wanted to change the world, to show people that they had a choice in life. That they didn’t have to be stepped on day after day by the authorities. The press, when it’s not in it just to sell papers, is a tool for the people, the only way they can have their voices heard in an intelligent way. Of course, try telling that to the suckers at Newsweek, or, God help you, the putzes at CNN or FOX News.
So, come election time and when the full staff is back at the presses—being on a university paper means that you are held in thrall by summer and winter breaks—who do they turn to in order to get a good look at what’s going to go down on the election trail? Yours truly. Of course, the editor approaches me with a certain amount of fear in his eyes—I was suffering from a massive hangover that day, the result of a night with a Beta Phi and a bottle of tequila, and was in deep thought that I had contracted crabs as a result of said contact with said sorority member—and broached the subject with me. I’d learned that the only way to deal with an editor-in-chief, regardless of whether or not they’re of a magazine or a newspaper, is to treat them like the shit they are. The scum-sucking, brown-nosing schmucks whose main concern is to keep the newspaper selling ad space, and this patsy was the worst of them. So, naturally, I treated him like he was the worst. I shit on his desk once after he struck a paragraph from an editorial of mine on the war. It was more out of principle than anything else: the paragraph was total crap. I listen to this scum’s offer, tell him to wait one second. I pull over a trash can, puke into it, then say, “You give me a spending allowance, then I’ll go.”
He can’t believe me, says that in all his career (career my ass, he’d been EOC one year, and before that he worked at a desk in one of the dorms) no reporter had the gall to demand an expense account.
“Ah,” I said, “you shit-kicker, it’s not an expense account. Truly, that would be absurd. I just want two grand up front so I can afford modest accommodation and sustenance along my merry way. Don’t want your star reporter to starve, do you?” I pulled the trash can close again, puked.
The insect gagged and agreed. That’s why I didn’t have any respect for him: he gave in too easily. All you had to do was say something that sounded even a little bit like logic and the man would cave. If he fought tooth and nail for that meager expense fund the paper had, then maybe I wouldn’t have puked in front of him or shit on his desk. But, there you have it; there are some people in this world that stick to their guns, and some people who don’t. He gave me two grand and a three week deadline. It was September first right now, and I was to have the article in the offices of ITN by the beginning of October, when the editor figured that the election circuit would be winding down—not that I gave a damn about deadlines. Deadlines are for people whose editors have a pair of testicles to their name. I was a senior at this point, one class away from graduation. The university had given me the shaft and essentially forced me to only have one class in my final semester, leading to my almost omnipresence at either the ITN offices or the bar across the street in which I worked and wrote. I arranged with my professor to have a creative project for my grade in the class, and managed to wiggle my way out of work for a month and a half—turns out that they’d make more money without me there to scare off customers.
After I got done with all the administrative bull, I took the check from the editor, cashed it, and got in my car to start my way. My car was an old Chrysler Lebaron that was constantly on its last legs. Emily, as I named the car, didn’t take to starting up and expressed her discomfort by backfiring five times in rapid succession, sounding like a burst from a machine gun. I loved her for her eccentricities. I drove her off campus, down the only road into town, onto the only road in town (Eldritch, Tennessee was a town that didn’t even have a stoplight to its name) and into the only liquor store in town. The county was a dry county by law, but the district representative was from Eldritch and owned the liquor store, so, of course, allowances were made.
The manager and workers knew me by name, knew what I liked, and how much of what I wanted just by looking at me. If I came in slouched over with bloodshot eyes, they knew I wanted vodka. If I came in with bags under my eyes and looking pale, like I had a weight to rival Atlas, then they knew I wanted whiskey. However, today I came in whistling in joy and greeted them in a singsong voice. This they had never seen.
“Now,” said Rob, the manager in the early shift, “I have no idea what we can give you to make your day better.”
I walked to the counter and plopped down my wad of cash totaling two grand. “Fill her up, my boy.”
“That money’s not dirty, is it?”
“Rob, give me credit. I only take money from those who don’t deserve to have it in the first place; and those who would willingly give me two thousand dollars sure as hell don’t deserve to have two thousand dollars in the first place. So,” I said, “fill her up.”
And friends, I had such a cornucopia of booze that Dionysus would be in shock. A gallon of Jack Daniel’s and Southern Comfort each. A case of half-Grey Goose and half-Smirnoff. I had such a wide variety of malt liquor that I could not begin to describe it in anything resembling list form without completely losing your interest. I had the best Scotch I could find, and then, for balance the worst Scotch I could find. I made my way to the exotic, high-alcohol beers, took a look at the selection, and bought it all. Since I was a loyal customer and was spending so much, Rob gave me a fantastic discount that, essentially, had me buying double what I would have been otherwise. About the only thing I didn’t get was wine and tequila. Tequila since it is the devil’s piss, and wine because what I had in mind for the trip was nothing that would justify wine.
We carted the lot out to my car, hoisted it into the trunk and the back seat, and wiped our brows. I still had a twenty left. “Anything else?” asked Rob.
I thought for a moment. That twenty could get me twenty hefty meals from Taco Bell, or a bottle of champagne for when I finished my plan. I scratched my chin—which at this time, sported a fantastic goatee—and came to the conclusion that I could easily purloin champagne where I was going. “No, Rob,” I said, “I think I’ll keep the twenty. Man’s got to eat somehow, am I right?”
Rob nodded. “Right on, man.” Rob may have been a pusher in his own right, but he was an ethical one. He wouldn’t force you to spend your last cent on his product, but he wouldn’t mind if you did. Ask me, that’s the difference between a legal drug like alcohol and an illegal drug like… well, most anything else. That’s also why I didn’t touch the other stuff: It’s easier to get off the hook with a bottle of Budweiser in your hand than it is with a joint.
Rob and I did our handshake. It’s a special relationship, the one between a liquor store owner and his favorite client. “Be seeing you on the news, Rob,” I said.
# # #
The first beer on the road is a special one, so I made it a special beer. It was a brew gleaned from the trace remains of alcohol on a cup from, I think, a pharaoh’s tomb. Wherever it came from, the contents of the bottle were delicious. There was definitely some grape in there, as well as some hints of honey on top of the usual barley and hops. What was more important was that it was powerful and delivered a hell of a kick. “Em,” I said, patting the dashboard, “if we make it out of this trip alive, I’m taking you to the car wash.”
I backed out of the parking lot and started down the two-lane roads until I reached the Interstate. Now, if I had been coming from somewhere like Knoxville, then I would have been fucked. There are cops infesting I-40 from Crossville to Knoxville, just waiting from some drunk yokel going to get his kicks in the closest thing to a metropolis he’s ever seen. I, however, was not a yokel, nor was I planning on going to East Tennessee any time in the near future, for it’s one of those places you should avoid like the plague. The accent grates on your ear worse than country music or yodeling ever could and blowing up an abortion clinic is seen as a form of legitimate political protest. Aside from the University, an oasis of thought in the madness, there’s nothing for a discerning man like myself in that direction.
I popped the cap on another one of the ancient beers. The road twitched a bit in front of me. It didn’t swim, but there was a definite twitch. I blinked a couple of times and checked the alcohol percentage on the bottle. 20%. Stronger than wine. Fuckin pharaohs knew how to party. I put Emily on cruise control, took another swig, and steadied my hands on the wheel. The road could twitch all it wanted, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to. What I was going to do was check my dashed-up itinerary. I reached in the back, knocked aside a couple of Jack Daniel’s bottles and took a glance. The candidate was first scheduled to appear in a city called Murfreesboro, a little less than an hour south of Nashville. I could get there in about that time, if I wanted to rush it. And, brother, I didn’t.
A very harsh sound came at me from in front of the car. “Fuck!” I shouted, spinning the wheel to the right and just avoiding a semi-truck that had been blaring its horn at me. Now the road swam. I drove another mile and finished the beer when I passed a hitchhiker on the side of the road. Emily’s brakes hadn’t been changed in what would have been eight years, but damned if they didn’t act like pieces of high performance engineering. I left skid marks that went about a quarter mile, then I put the car into reverse and stopped in front of the kid. I poked my head out, turned towards him, and squinted into the sunlight. “Where you going, kid?”
“Murfreesboro,” he shouted. He stood about six feet tall, had feathery blond hair, wore a black suit, carried a black duffel bag, and was just about the ugliest son of a bitch I’d ever seen.
I opened the door, staggered out, and walked up to him. He was virtually standing on the grass at the side of the Intestate, and when I approached, he almost tumbled into the fence marking the border of someone’s tree-lined farm. “Stand still,” I said. “I’m not in my right mind.” I staggered up. “My right mind’s back in my apartment,” I said, belching out laughter.
He let out a crooked grin. “Mister, you smell like booze.”
“Yup,” I said, “there’s a very good reason for that. Hung over. Know the best way to cure a hangover, kid?”
“Mister, I’ve never drank before on account of its being—”
“Shut up. You start drinking again. Thus, in the spirit of good health, I am drinking again.” I looked him up and down. “You’re an ugly son of a bitch, you know that?”
He scratched his head.
“How old are you?”
“Well, I reckoned that I’m probably twenty-one or –two. Mr. Chang, the Census man what got chased off the farm by Mr. Gamble didn’t tell me my age, but he—”
“Old enough to drink, and you never done it?”
“Well, Mr. Gamble only drank after watching me on the plow all day, and then he’d start shouting about the gumment, so I never been that interested in drinking, and so—”
“All right,” I said, “shut up. Let’s get in the car so we don’t attract attention having a chat on the side of the Interstate.” I started walking back and he picked up his duffel and followed. “What’s your name, kid?”
“Well, Cloyd, can you drive?” I opened the trunk, tossed the duffel on top of a couple crates of vodka.
“Dale let me drive his truck, but that was a few weeks ago, and I think I remember, but it didn’t look nothing like this an—”
I shut the trunk. “Same thing. Press the pedals, turn the wheel. You seem like a reasonably intelligent man, I’m sure you can handle it.” I opened the passenger’s side door and tossed a few bottles of whisky in the back seat before sitting down.
Cloyd got in the driver’s side and whistled. “Gosh, mister, you got a lot of alcohol in here.”
“Sure do, my friend. It’s a celebration.”
“Oh boy!” he said. “What for?”
“The political demise of a charlatan and scoundrel whose goal is the governor’s mansion. Now, this celebration may be a bit premature, but I assure you, it shall not be in vain.”
“No kidding?” Cloyd said. “I don’t know what a charlatan is. Is that a Frenchman?”
I laughed. “Yeah. To the French!” I shouted, raising a bottle of whisky and taking a swig.
“Apple used to tell me about the French. He said that they ate horses and snails and drank wine and did the sex about eight times a day.”
“I…” That was definitely a new one. “Apple? Are you from a commune?”
Cloyd scratched his head. “What?”
I leaned over and turned the key in the ignition. “Let’s get moving, Cloyd.”
He put his foot on the pedal and Emily lurched to a start. It was a little too much for me, and I belched. One of those belches that, if it were just a little bit harder, would have turned into a stream of vomit. “Try to go a little smoother, Cloyd. All this fun is going to make me get sick.”
“Oh, sure. Sorry, mister.” To my surprise he did go a lot smoother. The car, actually, ran better than it ever did with me. “Say,” he said, after a minute or two of silence, “did you mean what you said earlier about me being smart?”
“Sure I did,” I said, taking another drink from the bottle. If this guy were as dumb as he seemed, then he was either stoned, retarded, or from a sheltered life in the lovey-dovey world of some hippie commune. He didn’t stink and he wasn’t so bad off as to be retarded, so I was pretty sure the poor bastard was from a commune. Maybe not The Farm, but it wouldn’t surprise me, someone leaving that place. I did a story about The Farm once: it ended up with me setting fire to their crops and running away in the middle of the night. I never got along with hippies.
“Well gosh! I wish Apple were here to hear that! He always said I was dumb as a big bag of rocks, ‘cept that rocks could pull their own weight and I couldn’t,” he said, a look of either pain or indigestion crossing his face. Yep, he had to have come form a collective; kicked off for being too stupid, probably. Heartless, gutless hippies. “Tossed him by the wayside, I did. I kind of miss him, though. Apple had some great stories. He had this one about a fella named Mack Beth—which I always thought was a strange name for a guy to have—and him going all crazy and seeing knives and spots and witches.”
“The spot was Lady Macbeth,” I said.
“Gosh!” Cloyd said, getting so excited he stamped his foot on the gas pedal and sending the car jerking forwards. He looked at me and said, “Oh, sorry, mister. But you know that story? How?”
“Everyone knows that story, pal. It’s Shakespeare. Macbeth. ‘Out, damn spot!’ ‘Double, double, toil, and trouble.’ ‘Lay on, Macduff.’ Fucking Macbeth, man.”
“Well gosh, I never heard it.”
Those bastard hippies didn’t even teach the kids Shakespeare. How could they expect anyone to get through life without knowing a bit of Shakespeare? It was downright uncivilized. I found I had to take a drink in order to quell the rage rising within me. “Fucking hippies,” I muttered.
“What’s that, mister?”
“Nothing. So tell me, Cloyd, why are you going to Murfreesboro? It’s not exactly a tourist destination.”
“Ah well I’m not going there for to be a tourist, mister. I’m going to go find my dad.”
“And your dad’s in Murfreesboro?”
“Nope, Apple told me he’s in Nashville, but the Silvers—they were this Jewish family that I stayed with for a week and had a great big honking meal with—said that there was a train that went from Murfreesboro up to Nashville and that I could make life easier on myself if I went that way, so—”
“Okay, take a breath,” I said. The kid was panting and apparently finding it very hard to get all of his ideas out at once. “Tell you what Cloyd, you can stick with me as I make my way around Middle Tennessee. As part of my goal, I just happen to have to make it up to Nashville—mostly because this pig is going to be campaigning there. Then again, there are a few girls I haven’t seen in a while and, God willing, they’re still in Nashville.” I took another swig from the rapidly-emptying bottle. “Whaddya say?”
“Well gosh,” he said, “that’s about the nicest thing a person’s offered and it sure would be nice to have someone to pal around with now that I tossed Apple away after he made me leave the Silvers.” I considered the possibility that Cloyd was completely insane, but then again, here I was with a liquor store in my car and going on my way to ruin the campaign of a gubernatorial candidate, so did I really have any room to talk?
“Glad to hear it, Cloyd. We shall be a great team. One for the ages. One day, I might let you drink some of the pharaoh beer. But not today. Today,” I said, screwing the lid back onto the Jack, “that’s all for my inaugural journey.” I took another pharaoh beer from the pack and popped the cap. “How bout some tunes, Cloyd?”
“Sure! Whatever you say, mister—say, what’s your name?”
“Yudavitch. Omar Yudavitch.” I liked Cloyd, but my mom always told me never to give your name to a hitchhiker, and we must always listen to our mothers.
“Omar Yudavitch. Okay. Whatever you say Omar Yudavitch.”
“Wow, that makes it a lot easier.”
I turned on the radio, and one of the stations was playing “Looking Out My Back Door” by CCR. “Ah,” I said, “great tune. Great. Tune.”
“I’ve heard this before,” said Cloyd. “Dale was playing it when he almost ran me over with his truck.”
I took the opportunity presented by the ensuing lull in conversation—Cloyd howled along with the lyrics as best as he could—to think about exactly what I would be doing to this schmuck who had the audacity to pretend that he was a God-fearing individual with the People first in mind. I’d never been one for political protests. As a rule, I found that any time a large group of people marched in unison chanting things, my mind went to Nuremburg or Soviet military parades—not the Civil Rights marches. Up until the past couple of years, I had believed that politics should be discussed in groups of three or four over coffee or beer; but after seeing what havoc could be wrought by those in power, I decided that acts of gleeful prankage were the only things that could turn the tide of rising idiocy in this country.
As the next Creedence song came on—“Fortunate Son,” appropriately enough—I thought about this guy’s track record. He was a vocal member of a fundamentalist Baptist church based out of Memphis and had been sighted at a rally held by the church at which the leader of the church stated that AIDS was the scourge of God upon those who were not clean in His sight. (I thought about how fucked up our country was that hearing something like that come out of the mouth of a clergyman wasn’t that shocking.) He owned a construction company that routinely hired illegal immigrants (this coming from the man whose platform was based on punishing those employers who hired illegal aliens) and intimidated—and, on one occasion, badly injured—union workers. He presented himself as a good head of a moral family; I knew—in the Biblical sense—both of his daughters when they went through Cumberland Rift University on their way to Knoxville. (I wasn’t alone. They had quite the night of debauchery in Eldritch.)
In short, everything this man said about his life was grade-A, USDA choice bullshit. And me, I hated bullshitters. The only people who deserved to bullshit, in my opinion, were journalists—and that was only if they had a good reason to.
“So Mr. Yudavitch,” said Cloyd, “where’s Murfreesboro?”
Suddenly, I realized that the trip would be even harder than I thought.