SHORT STORY | LEAVING ROMEO
(From Novel: SOUTHEAST OF EDEN)
In the fifties, outlaw, thief, and cold-blooded killer Charlie Starkweather,
exploded across the barren American landscape like an out of control bottle rocket, robbing, kidnapping, and murdering anything that crossed his path,
leaving mayhem, desolation, and despair in his wake
...but that's not all he left behind
Don’t take no cut offs and hurry along as best you can.”
…a quote form one of the Reed daughters who
survived the disasterous Donner Party expedition
What I'm doing sitting here in the shotgun seat of a parked Pontiac in the cool of a late November afternoon in Romeo, Michigan with my boyfriend Jake and his two borderline psycho playmates, Cat and Bones, is anybody's guess. When I finally work up the nerve to ask Jake what the hell we're doing here he says he likes the name of the town. Probably thinks they named it after him, that being his nickname and all. I'm eight and a half hours from home, driving around in the middle of nowhere with Jake and the freaking Bowery Boys because Jake likes the name of the town; isn't that's just great? But what can I do? I may as well try to enjoy it.
I'm concentrating hard on a pretty, little, white, gingerbread house laying back in the trees when Jake starts rolling slow as syrup through town, listening to Mutt and Jeff in the back seat snore. I'm traveling down the road to ruin with the Marx Brothers, I swear.
Cat's real name is Bob but everybody calls him Cat because he smells like one, even after a shower, although I can't recall him ever taking one. He's a violent, little, Seminole nut job from somewhere so far back in a Florida Everglades cypress swamp that nobody even noticed that he never spent a day in his life in school. He may have the brains of an overworked lab rat, but Jake says he's a good guy to have covering your ass when the fur flies. Big, bad, loyal as a puppy, and dumb as a stump. You have to love those qualities in a man
And Bones? Jesus, there's another Rhodes Scholar for you, a stoner freak reject from New Orleans who thought Bourbon Street was too tame for his taste so he moved to Iowa because a friend he'd met in jail who was born there said it's where the action is. And he believed him. What else can you say? Neither Bones nor Cat graduated from Harvard, let's leave it at that.
It's coming on noon now and we're still driving around Romeo peaceful as merry little pranksters in our rolling metal mental ward, but I can tell something's wrong when Jake pulls over in front of this little, Mayberry style, ma and pa neighborhood credit union about the size of a dollhouse living room, and he tells me to wake up the boys. "It's time we get down to serious business," he says, "and actually rob a goddamned bank instead of talking about it all the time."
This isn't exactly a bank, but I doubt it matters to Jake. Some birthday present. I would have preferred to go see Cher in that chick flick, "Moonstruck," make out in the back row, eat a bag of popcorn, and call it a night. Jake's been up for days. His eyes are just black slits and, even though he hides it from me, I know he's been tweaking speed. He's high as a crippled kite, ordering us around like we're waitresses. What the fuck, I'm no bank robber. I don't remember signing up for this. And I have no idea why on earth we have to rob a Michigan credit union for anyway. There are hundreds of perfectly good credit unions in Iowa that are just begging to get robbed. But Cat says his ex-con buddy's sister works in this one and it's easy pickins. He actually said, "easy pickins."
It finally dawns on me that I most likely got drafted for this absurd joyride because I'm the only one straight enough to drive. I can't believe I fell for that birthday ruse bullshit. What my mother Jade would do to me if she could see me now, I can't even imagine. Probably shoot me. I'm good as dead either way. I'm too furious to pee and I can only stare blindly at Jake as he explains to me that I'm supposed to sit here across the street and keep the motor running while he and the Little Rascals stroll over to the bank,,wiggle their hardware around, shoot off their big mouths, and brag about how tough they are to the petrified, blue haired old maids who are standing in line about to watch their life savings go up in smoke.
I'm praying to Jesus that Jake and the boys will miraculously come down and crash any minute now and forget about this ludicrous, tripped out fantasy. I have to straighten things out around here quick before it's too late. Give those deranged cretins a piece of my mind. But before I can even say a word, Cat and Bones finish off a foot long line of crank, pull out enough guns and ammo to rob Fort freakin Knox, and start tripping all over each other as they stumble off with Jake towards the bank. They look exactly like the Three Stooges on their way to a Sunday school picnic. I don't think they have any damned idea what they're doing exactly. Cat and Bones are so wired on speed that, even if they do botch the job, it sure won't take very damned long.
I can't believe my eyes. I can actually see them through the window. It's like I'm watching this disastrous debacle on America's Least Wanted. They gotta be insane. Not to mention the fact that Jake took a seventeen year old girl along to do his driving for him, which is lower than a rat's ass if you ask me. But he does have style. I'll give him that. Snake charming the bouncy little, frizzy haired, freckle faced, gap toothed cashier, chatting up a storm while his band of merry men gather up the tens and twenties. Jake's so polite and friendly I'm surprised he doesn't give the old crone his business card so they can get together later at Denny's and maybe have a bowl of soup and a salad. If he's lucky, he might make enough cash for a couple burgers with fries before they send us up the river. Christ, what am I doing here?
Things don't seem to be going so good in there. Cat is supposed to be scooping up the cash but he's busy waiving a gun the size of a slab of beef at one of the shrinking violet cashiers, trying to impress her no doubt, and when he finally gets around to leaping over the counter, he falls on his face and his pants slide down around his ankles. He's so busy tugging them back up over his butt crack that he doesn't see one of the tellers duck behind the counter and sound an alarm.
All hell's breaking loose in there now and I about faint when I see Jake spin around and run into what looks like the Pillsbury doughboy dressed up in a Keystone cop uniform. The guy's pointing a pistol at Jake's struck dumb face but his hands are fluttering so fast he accidentally lets fly a round at Jake. I can't tell if he hit him or not. The cop looks like he's never shot a gun before in his life and before he can get his hands under control, he fires another round that ricochets off the granite wall through Cat's foot. Jesus, I can hear Cat bellow right through the window.
Pandemonium's breaking out all over evverywhere. There's sirens screaming in the distance and alarms blaring. It sounds like the goddamned gong show in there. And it's not helping anything that the car I'm supposed to drive is a stick. I never drove a stick in my life. Crap, you'd think somebody would have thought of that. At least we won't get pulled over for speeding. And I don't even have a driver's license.
Out of nowhere, Bones flings a bag of cash through the back seat window and jumps in, screaming at me to drive up to the back of the building. I'm jerking the car back and forth, fooling with the clutch, trying to jam the thing into the first gear I can find. I've seen people drive sticks but they should come with instruction, and this ain't exactly the time to pick up any tips from Bones who's back there giving me one of those looks coyotes give chickens while he's spitting out instructions in my ear. I have to cold cock the little fucker with my purse so I can concentrate on getting the car across the street in first gear without him yapping at me. I figure second gear will just have to wait for my next lesson.
Jake comes out of the credit union with another bag, holding his shoulder and dives through the open passenger window. Doesn't even bother with the door. Thinks he's Luke frigging Duke of Hazzard. And Cat's over there limping around like Festus in Gunsmoke, swearing at the cashiers who are following him out the door and throwing staplers and fountain pens and high heels and any kind of other shit they can get their hands on at him, screaming bloody murder. It's scary the way they're going after him.
Cat finally makes it into the car and I wheel around the corner as best I can in first gear while Jake's howling at the top of his lungs to speed up, yelling at me, "Ram it into second!" That's easy for him to say. He knows where second is.
Everybody's whining and carrying on so after about a half mile I just pull over and stop. I've had enough of this shit. Jake takes over and we hit the outskirts of Romeo, ditch the Caddy, and hop into the car that Jake's got stashed behind a garage. Whoever picked a used 250 horsepower, 455 V-8, Dual exhaust, 1972 Pontiac Grandville convertible for a getaway car oughta be castrated on the spot so he can't breed. We might not get away but we'll sure look cool leading a two mile long pack of salivating Smokies down the road to hell. Everybody's pissed at everybody by now and it's a zoo in here. I've about had it. Christ, if I knew this farce of a caper was going to be so much trouble I would have stayed home and knit my dog a sweater.
Cat's foot injury turns out to be a scratch but he's pissing all over himself and crying about needing a surgeon so Jake pulls over and stops in front of a veterinarian's office outside of Elkart and kicks his ass out of the car. And just like that we leave him there. I can see Cat eyes bug out like that Satchmo trumpet guy when he tries to hit a high note. He's staring in wide eyed disbelief at the car while his tongue flops around like a hooked catfish.
Jake finally goes back to get him and Cat never says another word all the way to Saginaw. Bones is laughing so hard he hurls up breakfast on his brand new, Harley Davidson motorcycle boots. And I'm thinking even Clyde Barrow would be ashamed to be associated with this sorry crew of retarded, brain damaged, gutter trash.
We've been driving so fast on these back asphalt roads that one of the front tires that's been slowly deflating has worn half way down practically to the rims. I can hear it kicking up sparks and clicking along down the highway like a train rolling down a sidewalk. That tire is just fried, the radiator's about to blow, and the engine sounds like red hot coals hissing on a block of ice. I know we aren't going to make it to Canada in this tricked out piece of second hand crap. Neither does Jake, but he won' t stop, which infuriates me. That 's just so damned like a man.
There's also no way we can all stay together much longer but I'm not about to say anything. It's like Sophie's choice. Somebody's gotta go but who? We're sitting ducks, three guys and a chick doing nine hundred miles an hour in a hot pink convertible. I doubt anybody will think we're out for a little Sunday drive in the park.
I can see the hard glare of reality creeping into Jake's semi-consciousness and I pray to God he can come up with one coherent thought fast because I'm a frigging basket case and can't stop shaking. It's like there's a squirrel inside my dress. And unfortunately, this isn't exactly my normal line of work. But I figure Jake's diabolical brain, even working at about ten percent capacity, can eventually come up with something. I don't particularly care what happens next. Even if I get away I'll be going to jail for killing Jake eventually. I'm screwed either way. And I know Jake's inebriated unpredictability will eventually overrule whatever good idea he comes up with. He doesn't let me down.
We pull into a Burger King near Alpena and Jake whispers in my ear, "Stay in the car. I'll bring you back something." Which is very fishy because the selfish little shit doesn't even ask me what I want. So before I can say squat, he and the boys bolt out of the car and go. About ten minutes later Jake comes running hard around from behind the restaurant and dives in beside me and we howl off into the dirty, white night. It's only October but it's snowing hard and this time we don't go back for anybody. I can imagine Cat and Bones, wondering where Jake went, baffled over all the time he's taking in the can. They're probably having a twenty minute discussion about what kind of a urinary infection he must have. By the time they figure out he's not in there, we'll probably be in Fairbanks, Alaska having lunch.
We're flying down an asphalt farm road just west of Flint and I can feel the fear sneaking around under my skin. I'm trembling so bad I can't tell if it's because I'm mad or scared. We're sailing through the shocking blackness, kicking up frozen, muddy leaves in our wake. Jake's sitting there behind the wheel like a James Dean cartoon cutout, keeping his distance, stealing glances at me like he knows what I'm thinking. I think he better damned well be thinking about where the hell we're going, because I sure as hell don't.
But before Jake can decide whether to spit or shit, that bad tire blows. It sounds like a horse throwing a shoe against a plate glass window and Jake loses control of the car and we flip over and scrape along the highway on the roof. There's sparks going off like the Fourth of July. We must be doing ninety but it seems like slow motion to me. I can see my entire life go flying by like a gray ghost dancing just outside the window.
When I wake up it's frighteningly quiet. A rabbit is sitting on the bank of snow, looking perturbed, probably wondering what we're doing sitting on his house. I guess this is what it's like to be dead. It's not so bad. I don't feel anything. Nothing's broken.
Jake's over there sitting hunched up on the half buried hood in a fetal trance staring at me like he's waiting for the second coming of Christ. Tears in his eyes. He's shaking as bad as I am and I've never seen him look at me like he gave this big a shit before. It's kind of touching, seeing him watching over me like this. Being dead is cool.
"Jesus, baby," he says. "I thought you were gone." And he slides off the hood and holds on to me as if I'm his favorite teddy bear and I just got my guts ripped out by the neighbor's dog and he's trying to keep me from falling apart. Holding the pieces together.
But once he sees I'm not dead, he doesn't waste any time getting back to his miserable, little selfish self. He's suddenly more concerned about the money than me and starts snorting around in the snow like a French pig digging for truffles, gathering up what ever bills he can find. The Pontiac is a goner but the snow saved us I guess. But Jake is so pissed at that car he grabs the tire iron out of the trunk with his one good arm and starts stomping the ever living shit out of that poor thing Jesus, it's just a Pontiac. It's not like it's the car in that Stephen King "Christine" movie or anything. But you'd think it blew a tire on purpose the way Jake's carrying on, smashing the head lights and windows, and flailing away at the radiator until it explodes and blows him off his feet into the ditch. "Working off a little extra energy there, Aaron?" is all I can think of to say.
"That fucking car almost killed you, Maude. It doesn't deserve to live."
"Jesus," I tell him, "remind me not to piss you off would ya?"
What a pathetic pair we are. We don't have a prayer is all I'm thinking. Some birthday. My dress is a mess and I'm lying at the bottom of the highway ditch with a certified, Grade A whacko, leaning against a totaled, stolen car that seems to be peeking forlornly out of the snow at me and I can hear water gurgling like a Cheyenne death rattle deep down inside its mangled radiator's rusted throat. Jake's looking down at me, quivering like a lost child and he says, "I'm sorry, Maude." And that's all it takes to ruin what's left of my makeup. Tears and mascara splashing against my coat. Black, wet, eye lash shadows falling across my face. Fear is fizzing like Alka-Seltzer inside my ears and I think that from under that mound of snow, deep inside the broken body of that crumpled car radio, I can hear Leslie Gore singing, and I'm not making this up, "it's my party and I'll cry if I want to…cry if I want to…" No shit.
I look at Jake and see a small little hole in his shoulder that I hadn't noticed before. There's a tiny, red river of blood dribbling down through a rip in his mud splattered, white shirt. Crap, I have no idea what to do. I stuff my scarf against it as best I can and try to stop the bleeding. Jake lets out a howl. You’d think I was amputating his goddamned arm. "Jesus H. Christ! Some guys get Florence Nightingale, I get Nurse fucking Ratchet. You trying to kill me?"
"Don't tempt me, you little sissy," I say. What else could I do? I'm no doctor. I saw a Ben Casey re-run once. In Girl Scouts I heard you could stuff moss or something into a bullet hole. Supposedly moss grows on the north side of trees but I don't see any damned trees for miles and I only have a scarf. It seems to be working.
God, the night is cold. Jake's over there quaking in his boots, talking in tongues, moaning and groaning like a blithering street corner evangelist. It's just a hole and the bullet went clean through. He'll live, assuming I don’t change my mind and pick him off in his sleep first. Probably do us all a favor. Save the taxpayers a few bucks on gas for old Smoky when they send him to the chair. But I could never do it. I'm still so sick in love I can barely feed myself and the enormity of that sad fact all but takes my breath away. Jake finally goes to sleep, squeezed in tight between me and the corpse of that poor dead Pontiac. I count the stars. I get to about a thousand before I nod off.
I'm awake again and notice the quarter moon, exposing the truth about our little predicament. It's pouring all over everything like it's hydrochloric acid. Panic sets in hard and cruel as silver slivers of moonlight cut across the frozen pasture and glisten on the frost. I know we have to get the hell out of here quick but I have no idea where to go. Thank God Jake pulls his pantywaist self together and starts dragging me out of the culvert with his good arm and hauling my dazed self through a stand of frost covered pussy willows, up an embankment and above the roar of the highway into a hay field covered in sparkling snow. "Follow me," he says. As if I haven't heard that before. I'd been following Jake half my life and look where it's gotten me. Covered in blood, broken pieces of glass in my hair, getting dragged down the road to hell, smelling like a junkyard dog; that's where following Jake's gotten me.
Suddenly, headlights blast out of the dark at us and we duck, weaving our way on our bellies between the decaying, leftover bales. There's a barn half submerged in the early morning haze that we slip into and we finally rest.
As far as I'm concerned we're totally fucked, but Mr. Positive Thinking is straining his brain, planning our next spree. I knew I should have torched that Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid tape when I had the chance. He's probably figuring out what we're going to do once we get to Australia. "You just keep doing the thinking there, Butch," I tell him. But he ignores me. I need to pee and when he turns away I do my business in the dirt, but when I finish and turn around, there's a gigantic, goofy, blond, Norwegian-looking sheep farmer standing over me with a lantern and a pitchfork. Jesus, all I can think about is, this sure doesn't look good. But Jake must have done some thinking of his own while I was peeing because I suddenly hear a sickening crash of metal against bone that nearly blows my ear drums off, and when I look down at that farmer lying there I swear I vomit all over my shoes. Jake just blind sided him with a shovel and the poor farmer's head looks like a squashed watermelon. I can't believe it. I think I faint.
I come to and feel my heels digging through the wet grass. Jake's left arm is useless and he's pulling me backwards with his other one through the frozen dirt towards the farmer's dilapidated old red Lincoln. My head is spinning around like an old 45 record and cold as I am, my dress is soaked with sweat. I get back on my feet and get in the passenger seat. It smells like it's been left out in the rain for years with the windows open. A rooster jumps out of the back seat. He looks pissed and squawks off through the door as I get in. The keys are under the floor mat. The car starts and we're gone.
Just like that it's over and we're flying. Fear and nausea blur in front of me like wet, sticky gauze, pasted against my face. I can't see much but I can see my life dissolving in the cool Michigan morning. I know it's all over for me now. And Jake? he's driving like Mario Andretti, following his instincts, all of which are bad, driving blind, reading the signs in Braille, and taking those yellow brick road corners on two wheels, looking for some courage. And a brain. And a heart. This could be Kansas but I doubt it. We drive forever. Through the fog of dread I can barely make out the sign; Canadian border, five miles ahead.
Then, on the northwest edge of Sault Ste. Marie, Jake pulls over in front of a bus depot and looks at me like I'm an orphan he's just met. That same kind of look he probably gave his nut case mother when she was alive but couldn’t because even when she was there, she wasn't there. She didn't know who he was, or she was half the time, or who anybody was for that matter. I can't tell what Jake's thinking, locking me in with that desperado look. It's a look I've never seen on his face before, but there's a lost, sad sweetness in it. It's like he's hypnotizing me. Or wishing I was dead. Who knows. I just know I don't like what I see in those wild child eyes of his anymore.
I'm shaking so hard my cavities rattle. Jake has his hand on my shoulder and brushes a strand of damp blond curl from my face, calming me down, explaining to me that he's doing the one good thing he's ever done in his life. The one act of kindness he can remember ever doing. He says nobody even knows it was me back there at the credit union in Romeo. Nobody saw me. They have no idea who I am. I can just walk away. It's too late for him, he says, but I can just go home. He doesn't say he loves me. He doesn't say I'm pretty. He just kicks me out by the side of the road like I'm a hitchhiker that talks too much. I stare at the fat, sweaty roll of hundred dollar bills that he slaps in my hand like they're a contagious disease he wants no part of. Then I watch his red tail lights disappear. Watch them vaporize into the heartless, black, Canadian night.