Only once did I save someone’s life. I’m not sure whose life I saved, though – it could have been Gopher, Mole, me, or even the stranger. I think about it every time I drive by that particular exit on I-95 in southern Delaware, and look to the right at the off-ramp. I can’t seem to help it. Sometimes I even smile about it.
It was late in the fall of ’86. At that time I lived in Poulsboro, New Jersey, just a tiny, weathered-gray town in the south farmland a half-hour from Philly that hadn’t changed in 40 years. A place where time goes by like dry grass cut off season after season just to grow back again, all color wind-blown away.
It was the fall that Wesley came back from the Navy and I had just bought an old ’69 Chevy, a 17-year-old junker with a shot three-on-the-tree and bad rings. It was ready for extensive work on cinder blocks in my back yard, which is where it finally stayed.
Wesley was known to boyhood friends and even mild acquaintances in Poulsboro as Gopher. I’d known Wes since he became Gopher, when we walked down the road toward Woods Corner to catch the bus for school over to Gibbstown.
I had no idea what he’d done in the Navy, though he went on a lot about Thailand and the Philippines – bars and whores and the usual dick-pulling stuff. I wasn’t quite sure why he left the Navy or vice versa but a court-martial or even a Section Eight didn’t seem beyond Gopher. As a kid he was the kind of guy who would throw snowballs at passing cars on the way to the bus stop and when the car stopped, you know he’d blame me. Take off running, and half the time he’d hidden a rock in the goddamned snowball and I’d be lucky if no windows were broken.
I don’t know how Mole, whose real name was Bob, got his nickname either. I suspect it was because Mole was the kind of guy who always needed reflected light to see.
All this memory should have been about was how Gopher and Mole and I went hitchhiking down to Washington one night because my car was up on blocks and we had a great time blowing out around Dupont Circle.
So we were smoking some really fine sensimilla way past midnight on a Thursday morning and sucking down the contents of a liter and a half of really bad Canadian blend Mole’s brother bought for us at a package store before he headed back to the mines in Wilkes-Barre. And of course by the time we were ready for more the package stores were all closed. Plus we were short of cash.
That’s when Gopher got his brilliant flash:
“Fuck this shit!” he yelled over the Pretenders, slamming the dust out of my couch. Gopher loved saying “fuck this shit” and every other regular obscenity he could get his mouth around. I guess it was on account of being raised Catholic. I hear tell and Gopher himself confirmed to me that Catholics just go whole-hog either one way or the other.
Or maybe it was comforting for him, reminding him of being in the Navy. I guess he wished he was still there. He was actually on unemployment right then, as I recall.
Me, they never gave a nickname. I was always just Ted. A wannabe of the ‘60s completely out of touch with the ‘80s, hair too long, digging pot instead of snorting coke, loving run-on poetry instead of short, sharp ad copy. Romancing all that Beat and Haight bullshit, stuff I was too young for when it was really happening, and not yet ready to catch up to where I was. Two years out of high school I was all about selling surplus concert T-shirts at Cowtown near Swedesboro on Tuesdays and Saturdays.
Anyway, “Fuck this shit,” said Gopher, “I got me an idea. I know a whole bunch of crackerheads stationed down in DC. Let’s get out on the turnpike, you know, and hitch down there and spend all weekend partying.”
“We don’t have any more money,” I said. “You guys blew all my Cowtown cheese.”
“And we’re outta weed,” said Mole.
“Fuck that shit – these buddies of mine – they got plenty of both. And the drinking age is 18! What else do you want? Come on, let’s do it! Do it! Do it! Do it!” Gopher and now Mole were chanting in tandem, breaking up.
I liked the hitching idea anyway. The windows down, the wild world streaming by, some Led Zep or Dead on the 8-track. . .
We headed out to the turnpike which was just a couple of miles from where I was living in that little puke-green clapboard house. About half a mile from where I live now. It was a cool September evening and we were carried along by the vapors of the Canadian blend. . . We made it in no time, like fifteen minutes.
And damn if it wasn’t in the next ten minutes or maybe twelve we stood on that spur that we didn’t get our ride.
It was a Caddy. Now that was strange to begin with, you know, and should have clued me right away. Caddys and Winnebagos never stop. So here’s this brand-new ’86 Caddy picking up three guys hung with the look of dungaree desperation. That’s what I call it when you see some guys or a chick hitching a ride and they don’t have a jacket or a bag or guitar or nothing. You always wonder how long they really think they’re gonna be in the car and their stories always ring false.
Anyway this Caddy, kind of gold/peanut butter-colored with a dark maroon Landau roof, looking like a fancy, two-tone pimp shoe, pulled up short and the doors popped open. All at once. Gopher and Mole jumped in back, leaving me with the front seat face-time.
He was dressed in a polyester suit and he looked very uncomfortable like he’d been wearing it a long time and wanted out of it. Horrible pockets, wide lapels, some refugee dark burnt orange from the ‘70s. He was checking us out good, I could tell. Scanning me, his eyes running down to my shoulders, following the line of my limp hair. Then looking in the rear view mirror.
What I remember thinking was Man, this guy’s big! His hands covered the top of the wheel. Hunched forward and slouching, his head brushed the roof.
For a few minutes as we took off down the highway he made this regular conversation – where you from, where you guys going, how you like Jersey, that sort of stuff.
Then things got weird almost immediately.
“Open the glove compartment,” he said.
He was talking to me.
“Go ahead. Open it.”
I opened it.
“Take it out.”
I reached into the darkness and felt cold metal, and I pulled out this gun.
“You ever seen one of those before?”
“A gun? Sure, yeah,” but I sort of lied because I hadn’t seen a slick automatic like this in someone’s actual hand. Only on the tube. Once when Gopher’s asshole coke-dealing cousins showed up we went shooting bottles out behind his house with a .357 Magnum. I held it in front of my face, watching the ghostly sweep of overhead lights from the highway wash across it like TV showglow, or like the moon on cool water.
In the back, Gopher and Mole were truly oblivious, going on about booze and Annie Kinney, one of Gopher’s old conquests imaginatively recalled as a real back seat story.
“It’s a .25 millimeter Baretta, said the driver. “Automatic.”
“What’s your name, man?” I said and you know I asked it too quickly. Not casual, not cool, nothing like holding a sleek automatic pistol in my fist with the milky highway lights sweeping across it.
He looked at me in an intense way then, like I’d asked if his sister enjoyed blowing his best friend. I recall my mouth getting dry really fast.
“They call me Vince,” he said after a long time, staring back at the road ahead. A real long time, during which I laid the gun in my lap, muzzle pointed toward the door. Who are “they?” I thought.
Vince reached into his coat pocket. He pulled out some bullets and dropped them, like stones, onto the gun, between my legs.
“Load it,” he said.
“What? What’s that?” said Gopher from the back, finally paying attention.
“He’s got a gun,” said Mole, who sounded pretty drunk and out of it right about now and I wondered if we all sounded that way.
Slowly – and I mean really slowly, as slow as I could, I picked up some bullets and began to push them into the spring-loaded clip.
Now Gopher leaned over the seat for a look. “Hey! Hey, here, here, give it to me, man, I’ll do it.” Real friendly-like.
Vince, looking over coolly at us, scanning the rear view mirror, said, “Go ahead. Give it to him.”
“Asshole,” said Gopher good-naturedly as he took the gun out of my hands and leaned over me, plunging his hand into my lap for a clutch of bullets. I heard some strays drop to the floor of the car and roll against each other, clicking like a combination lock.
The spring action in the clip sounded with a regularity that began to grow on me as Gopher expertly jammed the bullets in. But I was feeling like a zombie, too, watching I-95 unwind before us, seventy, seventy-give miles an hour. The darkness of Delaware was slipping by like fog, and I wished Vince would turn on some music. I decided not to touch the radio.
“That’s no toy,” Vince said, looking at me again. It wasn’t a warning, it was like a statement in a court of law. “That’s no goddamned toy. You think that’s a toy?”
Lights shining in the rear view mirror caught the obsidian gleam of his eyes as he watched Gopher in the back seat turn the gun this way and that, examining it.
“No shit!” said Gopher.
“It’s not a toy,” said Vince and flipped on his right blinker. The Caddy began to slow down.
“Why are we stopping?” I tried to make my voice sound slow, matching the pace of the car now, but it just came out tight.
“Stretch our legs. Maybe take some target practice.”
“What the fuck? Here?” Gopher held the gun high.
“Groovy,” said Mole.
“Shut up, Mole.” I was in no mood.
We all got out of the car about twenty yards from an exit. I got out of the Caddy and stood on the shoulder feeling suddenly chilly and put my hands in my jeans pockets.
“Give me the gun,” said Vince.
Now what are we gonna do? I thought. Refuse to give it to him? But Gopher never hesitated, just walked over and slid the thing into this guy’s hand.
Vince took the gun, checked the clip, and raised it, pointing at the exit sign.
“What are you doing?”
The crack sounded against the night like a terrible searing moment of awareness. Even though I knew it was coming, I felt all the smoke and whiskey of the night snapping, burning up suddenly, stabbing my throat.
That was the first and only time I ever felt something like that.
“Here, you try it.” Vince put the gun in my hand.
What the, what are we doing, standing out here on the goddamned turnpike firing a gun at fucking road signs— You know this is what I wanted to ask but instead I pulled the trigger. I didn’t even look around. The hole in the E of EXIT that Vince had made was still the only mark.
“Now that’s shooting,” I said unevenly, handing the gun back to Vince. “Right through the same hole, just like Robin Hood or William Tell or whoever that guy was.”
“Gary Cooper,” said Vince and winked and gave the gun to Mole, who fired it twice but didn’t hit anything either.
A couple of cars passed quickly in the darkness.
Mole gave the gun to Gopher who held it with both hands and managed to stitch a line of bullet holes across the X-I-T.
Then Vince took the gun again and punched out most of the E.
By this time I was extremely paranoid that someone, a cop, someone with a CB maybe, would be calling in a report of these wildasses shooting up I-95 in southern Delaware.
Then Vince gave me back the gun. “Come on,” he mumbled. “Let’s go.”
We all piled back in the car. I was in the front again. Figuring that was pretty strange, thinking that was it.
Then Vince pulled out some more bullets and dumped them in my lap.
“Here. Load it again.”
Gopher leaned over to grab the pistol but I elbowed his hand away. I said, “Forget it. It’s my turn,” or something like that.
I remember him saying that. Fuck you. No humor in it, just an edge. But casual, like a stranger, you know? It made me think about one VW with the rear window smashed by a rock hidden in a snowball. I thought about the crunch, the wet skidding, the scraping noise of the tires on the icy road, as I slowly, very slowly, loaded the bullets one after another into the clip. I felt that firm spring press harder and harder against my thumb.
“That’s it,” said Vince, but it was not reassuring. He reached in his pocket again.
Instead of pulling out more bullets, he brought out a money clip.
Gopher and Mole were off in their own conversation again, starring Gopher in a Philippines brothel.
“You ever seen money like this before?” Vince asked me.
I never had. He had big hands, like I said before, and this money bulged from his fist like a softball. And it was all fifties and hundreds. I swear, mostly all new, there must have been $20,000 there.
“Huh? I’m asking. You ever seen money like this before?”
“Have to say, no sir, no sir, Vince, never did.”
Suddenly this money was making me more nervous than the gun.
He flipped the bills with his thumb, as if he was dealing expertly at a high-stakes game. Shit, it was twenty, thirty thousand easy. . .
“You finished with that gun yet?” said Vince and laughed sort of but it was more like a snarl. He put the money back in his coat pocket.
I was, in fact, just about finished, even though I was taking my time.
“Quite a beauty, isn’t it?” asked Vince. He was eyeing me again.
“Not a toy,” I agreed. The pistol lay in my lap as we drove on in silence. There were now at least four sets of fingerprints on this piece and my imagination was really taking off:
Vince is really a hitman and this is an elaborate way of pinning a murder rap on us when they find this gun somewhere in a Bergen County deli at the scene of a mob rubout they’ll run prints and get me because of my marijuana bust or get Gopher because he was in the Navy and he’d finger me immediately and—
Hold on. Vince is a gun dealer. He sounds like a salesman. He looks like a salesman. He probably just carries guns around, always looking for customers. Member of the NRA. Good up-standing homeowner. Probably was in the Marines or some shit like that.
Maybe he’s really a cop, yeah but wait, he’s also fucking psycho and he could totally just dump our bodies beside some shot-out exit sign—
“That’s not the gun I use, though,” said Vince as he reached down into the darkenss under his seat. Down by his ankle.
I think it was strapped to his leg. I’m not sure, but that’s what it seemed like. Maybe over time my mind exaggerated this. It’s a small detail.
“This is the one I use,” and out came this silvery snubnose .38.
“You know what this is,” said Vince.
“Sure as shit!” said Mole. He and Gopher were now looking at the gun. I glanced back and saw the most frightening thing in Gopher’s face – even in the semi-darkness I could see the sheer, uncomplicated joy in his glittering eyes.
“Yeah, you’re all pretty stoned, but you know what this is,” said Vince good-naturedly.
“What? What did you say?” Shit, he is, he really, he’s got us down cold. He’s gotta be a cop, setting us up, but where would all that money come from?
“I said, you all want me to loan this to you, but you know how it is.”
Relax, relax, he’s a salesman, he’s worried about guys on the road trying to rob him, he doesn’t have our number—
“What did you say, man?”
Telling Gopher to shut up would have just opened my mouth again.
“I said, you know what this is.” Vince waved the gun.
“What’re you saying, man?”
Vince turned to look at Gopher and I wasn’t sure which was worse – worrying about this gun or hitting the median barrier at seventy.
“What are you, deaf? Or just really thick? I know you heard me.”
“I mean what do you mean, man?”
Gopher, I figured, learned just enough bravado in the service to get someone near him killed. That’s probably why he was here now.
Vince turned and looked at me. “Your friend’s a real conversationalist, isn’t he?”
I wasn’t sure what was the best answer: He is a real conversationalist. He’s not a conversationalist. He’s not my friend.
Vince began to slow the car. There wasn’t an exit in sight. He stowed the .38 under the seat. This time I watched it.
“What’re you doing?” I tried to make it sound like a regular question.
“I gotta take a leak.”
I grabbed the Baretta in my lap, heavy with bullets, when he hit the shoulder. The tires kicked up some loose gravel that rattled under the car as he braked.
Vince got out of the car, left his door open. Before I could say anything, Gopher and Mole were out of the back. I figured I should get out, too.
“Where’s the gun?” Gopher hissed, gesturing with both hands like I owed him money.
I held onto it.
“Give it to me, man.”
“What do you want it for?” I decided right then I wasn’t going to tell Gopher about the money clip.
So here was Vince pissing off the shoulder, showing his back to us, looking up into the crisp night, taking his time. This was the point where I knew I shouldn’t give Gopher the gun.
I mean, here this guy had given us an automatic pistol. Flashed me money. He’s loaded. Left his piece in the car. In the middle of nowhere, one of him, three of us just desperate dungaree stone punks.
Shit. I couldn’t figure out what was going down, except that I had the gun and was determined to keep it.
“Just give it to me, man, what the fuck’s the matter with you?”
Vince half-turned to look at Mole, standing next to him, pissing into the ditch.
“Give it over you fucking asshole—“ and then Gopher made a grab for the Baretta but I jerked away.
“Cool it man!” And it came out a growl just to keep the tremble out of my voice. Everything was wearing off real sharp now, and the early morning air was sobering, setting me a-shiver.
“You guys ready?” Vince was staring at us, his big arms up on top of the Caddy, laying there like huge, beached fish. His hands twitched when he talked like things half-alive.
It was then, for the first time, I realized he was probably drunk. I thought he was. I figured he had to be. And we stunk too much ourselves to tell before. The paranoic in me relaxed as the hitchhiker in me tensed up. If Rule One was don’t ride with pyscho killer cop hitmen, Rule Two was don’t ride with drunks.
But I still had the gun.
We weren’t out on the road five minutes and Vince started in again.
“Yeah, I got you pegged. Just a bunch of punks, out for a joyride. Stick out your thumb, waiting for anybody, am I right? Shit, you don’t even know where you’re going. Nobody does.”
“You just drop us when you get to the Beltway,” I said.
“What? What the fuck?” Gopher is outraged. “No way. Vince, you going into DC, right? You drop us in DC, you got that?”
“I got that,” said Vince slowly. He was just glaring at Gopher in the rear view mirror, like watching a tail-gater.
“Hey, come on, Ted, give me a look at that piece. You’ve been holding onto it for a while now.” Gopher reached over my shoulder again but I jerked the Baretta way.
“You punks are gutless wonders,” Vince growled. This stopped Gopher mid-motion: his arm hanging over my shoulder, that bad-ass grass and whiskey breath on my neck.
“You punks haven’t got what it takes.”
What it takes? I was thinking really hard here, hoping Gopher and Mole were doing the same.
“There’re three of you. I know what you want. You don’t but I do. I’m sitting here flush and you just don’t have what it takes.”
“Hey, listen man, I was in the Navy—“
“The Navy?” Vince snorted. “The fuckin’ Navy? The Navy’s for fags, man. Talk to me. Semper fi you motherfucker, semper fi!”
“What is this shit?” Gopher was saying now. “What is this fucking shit?”
“Shut up, Gopher.”
“Give me the gun, man,” and now it was his turn to growl.
“The Navy’s all dress-busters, man. C’mon, you long-haired fags got something there, it’s no toy—“
“Give me the gun, goddammit!”
Vince began to laugh. Then he said, “All right, you assholes, shut up!”
Gopher sank back into the blackness of the back seat. Mole just watched with his mouth open. “You fucking jerk,” Gopher said to me. “You’re so fucking stupid.”
“I’m stupid? I’m stupid?”
“Put the gun in the glove compartment,” Vince said.
I couldn’t tell if we were near the Beltway yet. Just somewhere in pre-dawn Maryland.
Vince was chuckling now, eyeing the piece in my hand.
“Put-the-gun in the glove compartment.”
The car began to slow and over the rise I could see the sign for College Park.
Vince was pulling over. It was indeed getting light outside.
“Give me the gun,” said Gopher again.
But this time there was no time. Vince just covered my fist, squeezing. I got the message. I gave him the Baretta.
We were stopped now.
“Get out,” Vince said.
There was nothing left to say.
We got out and I remember that I had been getting a headache but once I was out of that goddamned caddy I just had this explosion inside and the dawn was so soft and coral, dewy and new. Birds flew across the sky like scattered pepper. Cars were roaring by like nitro-fueled street eliminators.
Without another word or sign, Vince took off, headed for D.C.
“That was too fucking much,” I gasped.
“That guy, the whole scene—“
“Hey he was just a show—“
“You weren’t in the front seat, man,” and I was feeling really jittery and here’s Gopher trying to be Mr. Cool.
Mole didn’t say a thing.
And I remember we were standing next to the whizzing cars, and it never occurred to me before that moment, but the fact is an interstate is a very dangerous place. It’s a killing zone, a web of concrete desert with strands thousands of miles long. Nothing grows there. Tens of thousands of people die every year inside rapidly mangled steel cages. Mole and I nearly got killed running across the crazy southbound traffic heading into Washington to get to the slow northbound side.
“Assholes! Come back, ya fuckin’ wimps!” Gopher yelled. “Hey, hey, you wussies! We made it! We’re here! Come back, you assholes!”
But we didn’t stop. And we didn’t look much one way or the other once we took off across the deathzone.
Nowadays I drive up and down the deathzone a lot with my own pieces, but only once did I save someone’s life. Now, actually, when I use them it’s just business as usual.
For John O.
Born in Wimpole Park, near Cambridge, Sussex, Timothy Ryan‘s fiction has appeared in literary magazines such as American University’s Folio, Seattle’s Fine Madness, and the Clinton Street Quarterly in Portland, Oregon. Non-fiction has appeared in publications and outlets as varied as Harper’s, Foreign Policy, Reuters, The Far Eastern Economic Review, The Christian Science Monitor, High Times, and the Huffington Post. My novel “The Sisters: A Fable of Globalization” is now available on Amazon.com. Most recently, “It Takes More Than A Village” is a chapter in the academic book Building Global Labor Solidarity (Haymarket Press, April 2016). I am an alumnus of the Henry Jackson School at the University of Washington, Masters in South Asian Studies and a member of the National Writers Union. Currently I am the Asia Director of the Solidarity Center in Washington, D.C., and the Chairperson of the Global March Against Child Labour.
If you enjoyed ‘Loaded’ leave a comment and let Timothy know.
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