By Ed Staskus
“The end is always near,” Greg Harper said. My ears perked up. His hands were free and easy on the steering wheel. He was driving well enough to keep us on the road, but his eyes were like pinwheels. The magic mushroom he had popped into his mouth a half hour earlier was working its magic. I couldn’t tell him to slow down because he was driving slower than the oldest slowest man in the world. I reached for the seatbelt, anyway. When I did I found out Greg’s 1961 top drop Chevy Impala SS didn’t have seatbelts.
SS stood for Super Sport. There was nothing super about the car anymore, except for the engine, which was still super when it had to be. The rocker panels were rusting out, the front of the hood was dented, and the tires were bald as baloney skins. The car was Roman Red on the outside while the interior was scuffed black leather. I reached for the grab bar attached to the padded dashboard.
“Did you know this car was built by union labor right here in the USA?” he asked, apropos of the Jap and German cars we had been seeing here and there.
“No, I didn’t know that,” I said.
“It’s got a V-8 engine. One of my relatives might have built it.”
“Is that right? By the way, what do you mean the end is always near?”
“Like they say,” he said, “the future’s uncertain and the end is always near.”
At the moment the Chevy was running on V-1 and there were none of Greg’s car-making relatives in sight. What was in sight was the future. There was a flashing red light behind us. It was the kind of light that always looks final. It gave me the blues. The Meigs County cop didn’t have any trouble getting on our tail. He had trouble pulling us over, however, even though the road was straight as a preacher. The manual steering took more than five turns of the steering wheel to go from lock to lock. In the state he was in it took Greg a few minutes and a mile-or-so to master the mechanics of pulling off onto the shoulder.
The policeman didn’t bother asking for Greg’s driver’s license. “Step out of the car and let me smell your breath, son,” he said.
Greg exhaled in his direction.
“You smell all right,” the policeman said. “It don’t seem like you been drinking or puffing on stinkweed.” The car had a vacuum powered ash tray that sucked ashes to a container in the trunk. “Why are you going so slow when you got that power horse under the hood?”
“I know this road doesn’t go anywhere but I’m looking for the end of it,” Greg said. “I don’t want to miss it.” The Meigs County cop wasn’t fazed by what Greg said. “It don’t go nowhere but it always brings you back again,” he said. Greg looked flummoxed for a minute. The policeman looked the Impala up and down. “This is the car the Beach Boys wrote a song about, son.”
The song was a big hit in its day. “Nobody can catch her, nothing can touch my 409, giddy up, giddy up, my four speed dual quad 409,” Brian Wilson sang in his big falsetto while the rest of the boys layered the harmonies. The fired-up 409 was fitted with a 4-barrel carburetor and a solid lifter camshaft. The pistons were made from forged aluminum. The heads and engine block were made from cast-iron.
“Those were the days, boys. Make no mistake, that Impala is a real fine car. Try to put some giddy up into your driving. And keep it on the yellow line.” He got back into his black and white Dodge Coronet police car and u-turned around going the other way. He went away straight as an arrow.
I was along for the ride on Greg’s ride that day. I was spending the spring summer and fall in a place called Carpenter living with Virginia Sustarsic in an abandoned general store. She wasn’t my girlfriend, but we got along, even though she was a dyed in the wool hippie and I wasn’t. She rolled her homegrown delicately and deliberately. We kept two goats, gleaned plenty of food, and brewed our own beer. A kitten made us his crash pad. The town wasn’t a town so much as a whistle stop, even though the railroad had long since abandoned the place. There were fewer than a dozen residents, including us. There were dust balls in all the corners. Every star in the universe twinkled in the nighttime sky.
Carpenter was in Meigs County. It was named after Return Meigs, Jr., who was the fourth governor of Ohio. The county is on the Appalachian Plateau in the southeast corner of the state. The Shade River and Leading Creek drain into the Ohio River. Leading Creek ran right through Carpenter. In the 1970s the county’s population was less than 20,000. As far as I could tell there were no Asians, Native Americans, or African Americans. There were hillbilly highways as far as the eye could see.
Greg was a friend of John McGraw’s, who was Virginia’s on-again off-again boyfriend back home. They both lived on the bohemian near east side of downtown, near Cleveland State University. John was a part-time writer and drank booze right from the bottle. Greg came from a more polite class and drank from a glass. He and John had planned on visiting Carpenter together, but at the last minute John bowed out. Greg came anyway, cruising all the way from one end of the state to the other in his big red Chevy.
Virginia dressed like it was still the Summer of Love while John dressed like the Age of Beatniks had never ended. Greg wasn’t any better off than them, living half on and half off the American Dream, but he dressed like a preppy. He read the classics. He was studying Latin so he could read Ovid and Seneca in the original. Nobody ever suspected he kept magic mushrooms in his wallet.
Something came over Greg the minute the Meigs County cop was out of sight. He fired up the Impala. He spun gravel getting back on the asphalt. The next minute we were doing eighty in a forty. The Doobie Brothers came on the radio belting out ‘Rockin’ Down the Highway.’ I took a peek in the rearview. There was no hot potato behind us. I looked through the windshield at what was in front of us. All the danger was ahead.
“We should maybe slow down,” I suggested as loud as I could yell.
The Impala was a four on the floor. She wasn’t good on gas and burned some oil. Greg picked up speed. We were doing a hundred in no time. There were no more gears to shift up into. His eyes weren’t pinwheels anymore. They glinted like icepicks. He leaned over the steering wheel. The car wasn’t sloppy, nor was Greg’s handling of it sloppy, but we were headed for trouble. We were blasting down a back road. It was cracked and rough. Meigs County didn’t have the tax base to keep its roads in any kind of Daytona 500 shape.
“I’m not asking for a miracle, Lord, just a little bit of luck will do,” I whispered.
“Every minute counts,” Greg shouted above the wind noise.
“Keep your eyes on the road,” I shouted back. “You never can tell what’s around the corner.”
He waved at the outdoors with his left arm. Southeastern Ohio on a sunny day in the summer is beautiful. When we roared around a blind curve there wasn’t anything there, to my relief, until there suddenly was. It was a roadhouse with some cars and pick-ups in the front dirt lot. The sign said Frank’s Roadhouse. There were antlers nailed to the outside wall above the front windows. We pulled in, skidding in three or four different directions. There were half a dozen bungalows in the back.
Inside there was a bar, a kitchen, some tables, a dance floor, a riser protected by chicken wire, and a pool table. A man and a woman were having mashed potatoes with pulled pork at one of the tables. A bottle of BBQ sauce stood at the ready between their plates. There was some action going on at the pool table but none on the dance floor. Before I knew it Greg had found his own action at the bar, where a cute brunette was sitting, a lowball glass half full of red wine and a paperback book in front of her.
There was an oblong mirror on the wall behind the bar. It was too smudged to see into. There was a hand-written warning, too. It said, “Don’t eat the big white mint!” I didn’t ask what it meant. I didn’t want to know.
What’s a simple man to do? I looked around for something to do. I put a dollar on the lip of the pool table marking my turn in line. There were two men playing nine ball. It was the middle of the day on a Thursday. Neither of them was on union soil. Neither of them was being especially efficient. There were seven or eight bottles of Burger Beer on a small round table behind them.
One of the men looked me up and down. “I’m a pretty big man around these parts,” he said, flashing an ersatz grin. He had sharp teeth. He was shorter than me, but I knew what he meant. “I thought you’d be bigger,” I said. He didn’t laugh. He had the sense of humor of a circus strongman. The other man laughed his head off. My man broke the rack. He was no Minnesota Fats. When my turn came I ran the rack and took my dollar back. I collected a dollar from the local yokel. He tried his luck two more times and paid me two more dollars. He didn’t know, and I didn’t tell him, that I spent more time than I wanted to admit shooting snooker at Joe Tuna’s Pool Hall back in Cleveland.
I bought them both beers, they clapped me on the back, the circus strongman harder than he needed to, and I went back to the bar, joining Greg and the brunette. He wasn’t paying any attention to her book. He gave me a wink, which meant the main drag from the eye to the heart doesn’t go through the intellect, or words to that effect.
Her name was Jeannie. She was a third-year student at Ohio University in Athens, 20-some miles to the north of where we were. She was majoring in English. She wasn’t enrolled in classes that summer but had stayed in Athens instead of going home to Cincinnati. She spent her spare time exploring. She had found Frank’s Roadhouse by accident, liked the looks of it, and stopped in for the afternoon.
“What do you like about this dump?” I asked.
“It looks real,” she said.
I was willing to grant her that. When the bartender approached I ordered a Vernors Ginger Soda. Between Greg’s psychedelics and the shot of whiskey in front of him, one of us had to stay sober. “Who is Frank,” I asked the bartender. “There ain’t no Frank, at least not no more,” he said. “What happened to him?” I asked. “Nobody knows,” he said.
I reminded Greg we had promised Virginia we would stop at the grocery store in Pomeroy and pick up milk, cheese, and toilet paper. The toilet paper was like gold where we lived. Greg’s eyes had gone soft. He needed reminding. I had to remind him twice. He finally slid off the bar stool glowing like an electric eel.
Jeannie followed us out to the Impala. “I like your car,” she said. Greg asked her if she wanted a ride back to town. She pointed to a VW Beetle. “Fontasse postem infantem,” she said, jotting her name and phone number down on a scrap of paper. She pressed it into Greg’s hand. She rose up on her tiptoes and gave him a kiss on the cheek. I never saw a man go head over heels as fast as Greg did that minute.
Once we were in the car, humming along Route 143 on our way to Pomeroy, I asked him what she had said.
“Maybe later baby,” he said. “That’s what she said.”
There was enchantment in his eyes. “Keep your eyes on the road and your hands on the wheel,” I reminded him for the last time. I didn’t have to remind him to keep his hands off the magic mushrooms in his wallet. He was riding high on a different kind of magic. Love may not make the world go round, but it makes the ride worthwhile.
Ed Staskus edits Theatre PEI. He posts on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Made in Cleveland http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com.