It’s New Year’s Eve. My friend Frank is booked to play in an Irish bar across the state in Charlotte. He doesn’t like to drive long distances on his own so he invites me and Spider along for company. When he asks we’re sitting in the front room of Sixth and Nun, drinking twenty-two ounce Buds and smoking weed. I look at Spider and wince. It’s a four hour drive to Charlotte from Wilmington. Spider says nothing. He sits in his chair and combs his tattooed fingers through the slopes of his moustache, cajoling the grey hair into tapered points.
‘It’s a free bar,’ says Frank, and that decides it.
Frank and I cross to the corner store to buy supplies for the trip. Mahoud, the owner, is behind the counter. He is the eldest of the numerous Palestinians who work the till; an overweight, middle-aged man with a slender gap between his two front teeth. He has a short moustache and crafty eyes and when he sees Frank he opens his arms wide and smiles.
‘My Irish friend,’ he says. ‘Welcome.’
Frank and Mahoud start chatting at the counter while I slope off to the coolers at the back of the store. Frank is from Belfast, and the first time he met Mahoud he started talking about the Jews and the war in Palestine. How the nationalists in Belfast fly the Palestinian flag and the Unionists the Israeli one. Mahoud instantly warmed to him, as one can when you meet in a foreign place someone who knows the details of your origin.
I carry twelve pint bottles of Bud up to the counter in two separate trips. I listen as they talk about Saddam. The papers say he might have a nuclear bomb. It’s the media prelude to the Iraq invasion. As I set the beer down Mahoud says: ‘If he has it, we say drop it. Just get them. If it hits us too, it doesn’t matter. Just get them.’
We pay for the drinks and leave. Mahoud walks outside to see us off. I know that if Frank wasn’t here he wouldn’t do this and it vexes me. Although I live in the neighbourhood and see Mahoud in his store every day we have never shared more than the token remarks necessary for a commercial exchange.
We take the back roads as far as Whiteville, past Leland and Colly and Etown. We glide by swampland and pinewoods, tobacco fields and miniature, peach-orchard gardens. The sun sinks low on the western horizon, fingering shadows across the road through the boles of the pine trees. Farmhouses wait quietly back in from the road. They’re whitewashed and roofed with slategrey shingles. Red-bricked chimneys jut from their peaks. We pass two orange-capped hunters seated on the tailgate of a pick-up truck, drinking from gas-store coffee mugs. Their rifles lean against the side of the truck, the barrels crossing just beneath the muzzle. There are deer in the woods, wild boar and black bear. The evening has that crispness that a sunny winter’s day possesses. The sky has paled and dusk is soon to fall.
Frank drives an Oldsmobile sedan with an ivory exterior and scarlet seats that are as large as La-Z-Boy armchairs. He calls it the ‘White Rocket’ and he says he can reach Charlotte in three hours if he goes over a hundred the whole way. We uncap a Bud each and Frank passes me the bag of grass. It’s Humbolt’s best; olive-green pristine buds haired with orange fibres that are sticky to the touch. I roll a joint and fire it up. Two tokes and my brain dissolves. I can feel it oozing out of the top of my head and dripping down the back of my skull, just underneath my scalp. I pass the joint along then retreat to a spot behind my sternum, evacuating the mess between my ears. The evening sun tingles, the car is alive and real time has just dropped into low gear.
Frank talks. He talks a lot. Weed doesn’t slow him down. It actually perks him up, like what a line of coke would do for most other people. We have known each other for seven years and time has leached the novelty from our friendship. We have reached that point where we endure one another. So he directs most of his banter at Spider in the back, making eye contact through the rear-view mirror when he asks him a question.
Spider sits hunched forward, his head scraping the roof like we’re carrying a baby giraffe. He’s a tall man—at least six and a half feet—in his late forties, an ex-con whose visible skin is covered in Indian-ink jail tattoos. A chain is inscribed around his throat in wide, rectangular links and the backs of both his hands are covered with spider webs. Running from the back of his left wrist to the point of his elbow is ‘Fuck You’ patterned in Old English lettering. Spider spent seventeen years in prison. We met him a year after he got out, on a tarroofing job on a warehouse in Wilmington.
Frank constantly fiddles with the tape player as he drives. He plays The Beatles, U2, David Grey. He completely removes his attention from the road when he changes tape and once or twice I have to restrain myself from grabbing the steering wheel. The weed has made me paranoid.
Frank starts talking about how he had to drive Spider and his girlfriend down to South Carolina after they were arrested a year ago and I sink down in my seat and wish he would shut the fuck up. Frank’s conversation is usually an exercise in self-promotion. Another stirring tale of How I Saved the Day by Frank McCrory. I fade out from the noise of his voice, unplug from the here and now. This is not a story I like because the whole episode was my fault.
Spider reunited with an old girlfriend soon after he got out of jail. They stayed in a trailer at the end of a dirt road out near the beach in Hampstead. Chrissy sold weed and pain pills. She could be very sweet but had an unpredictable temper and always carried a barber’s razor tucked into her shirtsleeve.
Every now and then I’d drop out to see Spider and buy some weed. I’d usually get someone from work to give me a lift and leave them in the car on the dirtroad while I ran inside. One day I called out there with Donny and a new guy from work called Steve. I was living with Donny in a RV at the time, and Steve was up for any kind of high he could get. I had heard he was scoring rock after work. I went in and made the buy and started chatting with Spider. Although he was a scary-looking individual he was a real gentleman— always calm and courteous and possessing natural intelligence. He had read a lot in prison and was an excellent artist. Most of his ink-work he had done himself. When I went to leave Spider suggested I stay a while.
‘I got people waiting in the car,’ I said.
‘Well bring them in. They’re cool, Robbie? Right?’
‘They’re cool,’ I said.
I walked out and waved at them to come inside. From the open front door I could hear the sound of the ocean. Spider opened a case of Milwaukee’s Best and we sat in the kitchen and drank. Chrissy had some Valium so I dropped a couple.
Steve was a compact, hairy redneck from Florida with platinum-blond hair and a handlebar moustache. I can’t say I liked him much, mainly because he was always talking shit about Junior at work. Junior was a black guy from Washington D.C. and whenever he was out of earshot Steve referred to him as that dumb nigger. He’d really go on about it. Now all of the other guys at work were rednecks and nigger wasn’t a word any of them would avoid in day-to-day use, but Junior had been on the crew for years and everyone liked him. He was a big, happy bear of a man with a bald head and a gold tooth, a good-natured comic whose humour could make the workday seem a little shorter. Steve talking about Junior like that was starting to piss everybody off.
That evening in Chrissy’s trailer Steve turned to Spider and said: ‘I know you from somewhere. I’ve seen your face before.’
‘I don’t recognise you,’ said Spider.
‘I just got out,’ said Steve. ‘Maybe it was somewhere inside.’
‘Well that’s possible,’ said Spider. ‘Where were you?’
They two of them began listing the prisons they’d been in. It’s funny how prisons always sound like prisons. Bladen, Polk, Central. They just couldn’t be hospitals. But the way Steve was talking bothered me. It seemed insincere. I was pretty sure that Steve had never met Spider before and I was curious why he was pretending he might have. After an hour or so we left, but the next time I went out there I didn’t take Steve with me. I told Spider I didn’t trust him and not to have anything to do with him.
A couple of months later Steve was run off the job. Boyd, the foreman, finally got sick of him. One evening after work Boyd pulled Junior aside and told him what Steve had been saying about him. The next morning we were all at the shop loading the trucks when Steve drove up in his Toyota hatchback. Before he could even get out of the car Junior was on him, roaring at him through the driver’s window.
‘Say it to my face motherfucker!’ he yelled. ‘Come on. Say it to my face!’
Junior grabbed the front of Steve’s car and began shaking it furiously. He was a thick, solid man—he weighed at least sixteen stone—and Steve’s car was small. It began bouncing up and down on its suspension. Steve sat frozen in the front seat, his hands gripping the steering wheel. He was too frightened to look up at Junior’s face so he stared straight ahead at his belt buckle. He looked like a scared kid on an out-of-control amusement ride.
‘Get out of the car, you cracker motherfucker!’ roared Junior.
Steve looked around at everybody watching, as if he actually thought someone was going to come to his aid. When he finally got the message he put the car in reverse, sped out of the yard and that was the last we saw of Steve.
But it wasn’t the last we heard of him. Six months later I bumped into Frank in a bar downtown. We had been avoiding each other for a while over some petty quarrel. I had moved out of the RV and rented a room in town. I hadn’t been out to Spider’s in months. Frank told me that Spider’s trailer had been raided by the police and that he had driven Spider and Chrissy to a trailer park in South Carolina after they got out on bail. Some guy called Steve had set the police on him.
I felt terrible. And worried. Spider wasn’t someone I wanted angry at me. Two weeks later I drove out there with Frank to see him. Spider was sitting at the kitchen table, a tube running from his upper arm up to an IV bag hooked on a trolley beside him. He was sipping from a tall glass of water and smoking a Camel non-filter. Frank had warned me that a month previous he had been diagnosed with cancer in his liver. He didn’t look ill, but he had given up drinking and was on a diet of crushed ice.
‘I got it from that crappy food in jail,’ he said, but we all knew it was from seventeen years of drinking jailhouse pruno.
We talked. It turned out Steve had been turning over a lot of people in the county. He was a professional police snitch except he was playing both sides of the game. He’d set up a buy with a dealer, preferably cocaine. He would use police money to make the buy then cut the package before he left the premises. The police would raid the place as soon as he left and arrest the dealer and get their money back. Steve would hand over the cut package as evidence, then end up with half the cocaine for himself. These weren’t local police, they were some kind of federal anti-drug unit. When they broke down Spider’s door they had a swat team and a federal search warrant for cocaine and guns. Chrissy’s operation was strictly small-time—a few bags of weed and some pain pills. All the police found were a couple of quarters but it was enough to charge them with intent to supply.
I apologised for taking Steve out there and Spider acknowledged that I had warned him to stay away from him. He said Chrissy had been doing business with Steve when he wasn’t there. We were fine but I felt really guilty about it. No one said it aloud but we all knew that if Spider was sent back to prison, he might die in there.
After that evening I stopped calling round. I was ashamed. I didn’t see Spider for months. When I met him again it was the start of winter and I was eating a plate of hot wings in Charley’s on Front Street. Charley’s had free wings on weekdays between five and seven and the deal attracted a low-rent crowd. The bar was L-shaped and I was sitting at the end of the smaller arm when I caught sight of Spider seated halfway down the length of the longer arm. He was on his own and drinking a beer and I was almost sure he hadn’t noticed I was there. For a second I considered grabbing my change and slipping out the front door. I still wasn’t sure he had forgiven me. But just seeing him in Wilmington on his own in a bar made me think something was wrong. Spider was a country boy—he didn’t like towns and he didn’t like crowds. He had stayed holed up in that trailer since he got out of jail like he was still locked up in a cell. The regular world sort of frightened him. I picked up my bar change and walked down to where he was sitting and tapped him on the shoulder.
‘Hey Mike,’ I said. Spider’s real name was Mike Stuart.
‘Wow! Hey Robbie,’ he said.
We sat at the bar and I ordered a pitcher. Chrissy had thrown him out. Her lawyer had advised her to pin the charge on Mike because of his record. She was a hardhearted woman—you could tell that just by spending time in her company—and although everyone who went out there knew the business was hers, they weren’t the kind of people you could call to a courtroom. Mike hadn’t shown up for the hearing and a warrant was issued for his arrest. A friend was letting him hide out on a boat that was tied up at the docks near the port.
‘I can’t live like this, Robbie,’ he said. ‘When I was inside I never had to worry about shit like this. I always had somewhere to sleep. Last night I fell off the boat drunk. I couldn’t get warm again, almost froze my ass to death.’
I knew what he wanted. I also knew that he was probably putting it on a bit. But I felt I owed him one. ‘You can crash at my place till you find somewhere else,’ I said. We finished the beer and walked the six blocks to Sixth and Nun. The next day he moved his stuff in and he’s been living there since.
At Whiteville we connect to the interstate. From there to Charlotte we’re in a green tunnel. Kudzu vines blankets the highway embankments and clings to the struts of the road lights. Night falls. It is quiet. Frank has stopped talking. We pass a neon sign lit up in the dark. It reads: MARSHVILLE. THE HOME OF RANDY TRAVIS. There is a faint hiss from the tape-player as it chews on the end of an album. We have reached that hidden point in a journey where silence resides, and we become, not beside, but adjacent to each other. Sometimes people have a greater effect on me when they are not talking, when they’re still and lost in thought. There’s something unguarded about them then. We’re all shipwrecked in our own little worlds.
We’re flying along, the speedometer needle is flicking one hundred and ten, when Frank taps the brakes and cuts the speed to seventy.
‘The cops are behind us,’ he says.
I look in the passenger side-mirror. One hundred metres behind us and gaining I can make out the twin red revolving lights. The cold, calm facts of the night assert themselves. On the floor by my feet are ten empty bottles of Bud and there’s a bag of weed in my pocket. I have no ID. I’m living illegally in the country and I have a small knife in my inside jacket pocket. It’s not for cutting anybody, but I use knives at work and somehow one always seems to end up in my pocket. I know for sure that Mike has a weapon. He won’t even go to the corner store without cramming a claw hammer down the front of his pants. The siren wails and Frank slows and pulls in to the side of the road. The cop car parks ten metres behind us. Waves of red light from the spinning siren start washing across the dashboard. My heart isn’t pumping faster. It actually feels like it’s stopped. A cop begins walking towards the car. Frank throws open his door and jumps out.
‘I know I was speeding,’ he says, with both of his hands in clear view. ‘I’m a musician and I’m late for a gig in Charlotte. Look, I’ll show you my gear.’
I hear Frank walk to the back of the car and open the trunk. I stare straight ahead. Behind me in the back seat Mike stares straight ahead too. To turn around and look seems impossible. Like I couldn’t even do it if I tried. I can hear voices from behind the car but I can no longer distinguish the words. Slowly, I take my cigarettes off the dash and I light one. I glance in the rearview mirror. A cop is standing ten feet behind the car. He has his arms folded in front of his chest and he’s watching us back through the mirror, waiting for someone to make a sudden gesture.
‘I can’t talk to them, Robbie,’ says Mike.
‘I know,’ I say and I really do. One look at Mike and we’re all going to the station.
‘Robbie?’ says Mike.
‘Did Frank leave the keys in the ignition?’
I glance at the steering barrel. No keys. Thank God. For a second images from ‘Smokey and the Bandit’ crash through my mind, police cars slewing Uturns in a high-speed chase.
‘No, he’s got them, Mike.’
The minutes tick by and I light another cigarette.
‘Robbie?’ says Mike.
‘I really wish Frank had left those keys in the ignition.’
‘I know, Mike.’
‘I gotta run or do something.’
‘It’s going to be Okay,’ I say. ‘Frank will talk his way out it. I’ve seen him do it a dozen times.’
And it’s true. Well, not a dozen, but I stopped counting at six. Frank possesses this effortless charm, an ability to instantly gauge people and put on the correct face. He makes it obvious that he likes people and they find it hard not to like him back. Combined with two different passports and an international driving licence he seems immune to the hazards of a routine traffic stop. I had my licence all of three months before I was arrested for hitting a parked car while I was three times over the limit. It was on a small, quiet side street in Raleigh but two cops happened to be walking by. I tell myself that it’s only a question of luck. But beneath that face-saving notion is the fear that maybe it’s not luck, maybe the crucial difference is down to some failure on my part. It is so natural to be competitive with friends. When a friend succeeds where you failed, inside you feel a thread begin to fray. Friendship starts as a play of affinities, like responds to like, but people change, the becoming never ceases. You can end up at each other’s throats.
But the people you remember are rarely the ones who were anything like you. The friends that matter most are the ones you need something from, something to complete you. They change the person you become. Our friends we gather in our own nets.
I feel admiration for Mike, sitting motionless on the backseat, for his mistakes and his fuck-ups and his botched life. His impassiveness in the face of his own misfortune. In this country of people obsessed with winning and winners, it takes a fierce strength of character to endure your own failures with dignity.
The car door opens and Frank jumps in. He slides the key in the ignition and starts the engine. The paralysis in my neck fades and I look around. The cop car is pulling out on the highway. They’re leaving. I start whooping with relief.
‘What happened?’ says Mike.
‘I knew I couldn’t let them see you,’ says Frank, ‘so I opened the trunk to get them to the back of the car. It was touch and go for a while. They were two redneck motherfuckers. Then I asked one of them was this where Randy Travis was from. After that I couldn’t get them to shut up. Wanted to tell me all about him. Even asked did I know any of his songs.’
‘I thought we were gone for sure,’ says Mike.
‘How about you, Rob?’ says Frank.
‘I thought you’d talk your way out of it,’ I say.
‘When did you think that?’ he says, revelling in it, the star of the bar.
‘About the time the lights came on,’ I deadpan.
He laughs and punches the steering wheel and we drive on to Charlotte, three friends on a road trip