THE salacious details of how I ended up far from my home in Los Angeles, stranded in Biloxi, Mississippi with a dear friend of mine, whose interest in a certain sex worker was problematical, I do not intend to provide. All of it was merely prelude to my rendezvous with
nitroglycerin, which is all that is important here.
That said, I managed in my way to introduce a degree of calm, even decorum, to what was indeed a sultry tempest in a teapot. After that, it was time to go.
But one ought not conclude that Biloxi lacked entirely for charm. The Gulf waters came ashore as placid as a baby bird, and every living thing that grew from the ground was as deep green as a billiard table. At first, honeysuckle came on as strong as a hungry lothario marinated in cologne. In time, its seductiveness was more in the vein of the strumpet with a heart of gold.
Nitroglycerin, on the other hand is odorless as an ice-sickle, crystal as a virgin spring. Any garden-variety, purpose-driven imbecile is able to concoct the stuff: marshal together their pure glycerin, their nitric and sulfuric acids, their flask, their funnel, their bucket and distilled water,
their picnic chest lined with ice.
Getting out of Mississippi, back to our beloved California was our main priority. Charm or not, Mississippi undeniably is a redoubt of Confederate thinking, and reactionary notions.
Admittedly, we weren’t as flush with resources as we ought to have been. Getting home required a subtle element of innovation. This meant enlisting with an enterprise delivering automobiles for its relocated clientele, compensating drivers with adequate transportation from one nook of America’s purple mountain majesty to another. It was in this way that we took on our cargo of nitroglycerin.
And thus, our lives were put at risk. Objectively speaking they weren’t terribly valuable lives. Cosmologically, like every other person’s ours were merely specks. More specifically, like no small number in the city of Los Angeles, we were alternately on the fringes of the
entertainment business, and gainfully employed elsewhere. For me it was an encyclopedia of political history. This is what you were qualified to do as an English major, this and adult film, the latter of which so far I had managed to forego. During the daily grind I would be responsible
for something such as, In 1948, the Republican Convention was held in Philadelphia, birthplace of inveterate booing, and home of unreconstructed lousy manners. The housebroken contingent of moderate
plutocratic pencil-necks, led by mustachioed Thomas Dewey, battled for the nomination against the subnormal Druid contingent, represented by ultra-conservative hyena Robert Taft.
Not exactly, but along those lines.
In the case of my dear friend, his sideline paying the rent was writing movie reviews and music reviews for a subterranean magazine. Gratis movies and gratis concerts are not a measly perquisite by any means.
Our adoptive automobile was a newer model Toyota, though beyond that I couldn’t say, cars more or less the same to me. There was nothing to speak of in the back seat, though personal items belonging to the owner had been loaded by him into the trunk, not our concern at all. We had papers identifying us in the glove compartment, clarifying our identity as contractual workers hired to drive the car rather than car thieves.
We weren’t aware that something as utterly banal as clumsiness at the wheel could get us blown all the way to kingdom come. Otherwise, more care might have been taken avoiding potholes or rolling over speed bumps, though such is life’s serendipity.
We stopped off in New Orleans only long enough to eat a bowl of gumbo, as always supremely god-like when prepared there. It was as close as one could get to Nirvana combined with El Dorado in a single spoonful.
We detoured up into Baton Rouge from Interstate 10 simply to see the bullet hole in the wall of the legislature, put there by Huey Long’s assassin. The Kingfish was a personal hero, a monument from the days when demagogues flourished with panache, not always irredeemably
Somewhere around Lafayette, we deviated off the road to a shack one could spot from the interstate, where we sat at a picnic table in the tiny dining room eating crawfish etouffee and washing it down with beer. While there, we bought several six-packs of a local brew known as
Blackened Voodoo, the drinking of which was said to inflict a hex. I can neither confirm nor deny it does. In any case, around dusk, when traffic oozed to a crawl due to an accident somewhere along the way, we sampled a considerable amount of Blackened Voodoo.
After all that had transpired in Mississippi, between my dear friend and his wholly improper paramour, taking into consideration the effort I had invested settling matters, we would need to talk. The gap between his libidinal potency and the availability of suitable frolic mates now had reached a critical distance.
What I had to say to my friend, one man to another as it were, wasn’t entirely lacking in import. For instance, it was a strong opinion I offered regarding what I believed to be a relative dearth of arousal one could expect from a perfect stranger gyrating in your lap, little more than a sub-dinner theater approximation of sexual congress.
He was still a young man, though not a kid, so I was surprised when he asked, clearly half-deranged with frustration, “Why can’t women just have sex with you as soon as you meet them? Why all this fuss around it?”
“To begin with, they do have sex in exactly the manner you’re describing, only not with you. This is the luck of the draw I’m afraid.”
“It isn’t fair.”
“Indeed it’s not. Movie stars, for instance, being in the top half of the 99th percentile in physical beauty, lack any concept of the difficulty associated with the quest for physical intimacy for the 99%, which is why we hate them, as we also love them.”
“It shouldn’t be so difficult.”
“Perhaps not, but generally speaking, except for the occasional fortuitous exception among them women aren’t completely like us, and expecting as much will end you up in a sanitarium. If there are sanitariums anymore.”
“You seem to have a lot of sex.”
“Well, yes. I have a little more experience in certain situations I think. There’s a particular Irish facility with horseshit in play as well. I’m told I have a kind of niche appeal, a Mickey Rourke back-in-the-day thing. It’s not for everybody, but strongly compelling for those susceptible to it.”
“I guess I can see that.”
“You’ll find your own groove.”
“Maybe you just have to wear them down at times.”
“No. Definitely no. Sexual chemistry is what it is, and there isn’t any getting around it. People know what they want and they know it quickly. Time and badgering aren’t going to change that. Men simply have to learn to accept it. There are all kinds of women out there, just
move on to the next in line.”
By then, we had crossed the Texas border. It was dark, and growing fairly late. Before long we would need to rest, to find a room for the evening and sleep. Noticeable was the sudden appearance of potholes, and conspicuously ragged pavements, especially unfortunate for those
unwittingly sitting on a load of nitroglycerin. But it was Texas, where low taxes bred a shitty infrastructure, among other amenities that were greatly lacking.
Had we actually known we were carrying nitroglycerin, our trek might have been The Wages of Fear. But here is how it wasn’t. The Clouzot film derived its tension from the knowledge on the part of those paid for transporting nitroglycerin, that nitroglycerin was in fact in the trucks, and that crossing unpaved mountain roads with a load of nitroglycerin was a fearful way to earn a wage. Those men, desperately exploited workers, were preyed upon by a treacherous oil company, whereas we were simply impecunious bourgeoisie dislocated in our
nation of birth.
There were however similarities. In each case returning home became the ultimate goal, they to France from Mexico, us from the southern red states to our blue haven. And in both cases our respective travellers were a jolt or a jar away from atomization.
In Beaumont, we put the few belonging we had with us in the hotel room, and set out to find a meal along a miracle mile of Beaumont’s drag. The farther we drove, the more it resembled a time-loop of tedious roadside Americana until my friend espied the Tonga Lounge.
We had yet to eat a bite of food, but he pleaded, beseeched and begged to spend some time with the dancers there. Reluctantly, but with compassion, understanding he was pained with rejection, and roiling with sexual vexation, I agreed to stop.
My friend sat near the stage with his fist of bills, and amused himself accordingly. I hunkered down for the long haul. It was a pleasant place, with comfortable sofas and gentle lighting, like your living room, only with nipples and thongs. Not the hard sell version of such establishments, it was quite relaxed.
Normally I didn’t smoke, but the booze and hunger made me crave a cigarette after several hours. I borrowed one from Deena, a dancer smoking out in back, and we began to talk. She was fair-skinned, youthfully delicate, and pretty, in an ordinary way. We were joined shortly thereafter by a bartender who also worked in the club, a collegiate chap. It was near closing time, and Deena suggested we all ought to decamp for something to eat after the club closed.
There were three of the dancers, and the male barman in the car ahead of us, as we followed along unsure of the destination. Bless his heart, my friend panicked at every intersection, every approaching stoplight, terrified we would lose them in traffic.
Banging over buckles and crevices in the pavement was a jeopardy we put ourselves in only inadvertently, as we tried to keep up with them, trundling our temperamental explosive, with its idiosyncratic preference for tranquility. We followed them into the Denny’s parking lot, shockingly crowded, forced to take a space far away in the hinterlands.
Once all of us were huddled in the booth inside, I displayed my driver’s license to one of Deena’s colleague who’d requested a look, and given her profession, I added that I was a producer in the Hollywood entertainment business, thinking it would be a deft display of hilarity.
But to my dismay, it was received with full credulity. And so, promises were made. In truth, it was, under the circumstances, a necessary act of gallantry.
It hadn’t escaped me, this mystifying and unnerving flyover country custom of backing into parking spaces. Was it a salt of the earth masculinity thing, or largely symbolic of something? In fact, we did notice, my friend and I, sitting waiting for the food to arrive, the
driver in the pickup truck attempting to back into the space adjacent to ours. This cowboy however was an observably drunken one, and he banged into the door of our Toyota.
And indeed, the earth would move. The sound was akin to a sonic boom, the fireball one of impressive immensity, red, black, yellow and orange. Those inside were stunned, but clearly excited too. Many rushed to the windows, or out of the restaurant altogether, in order to get a better view. Of the ten cars or so quickly being transmogrified into embers, there was little doubt the Toyota taking us back to Los Angeles was among them.
Created seemingly by the divine, out of little more than East Texas suburban nothingness, there was now a rubbernecker’s earthly paradise. Emergency vehicles of every denomination, a
multitude of the flashing lights so transfixing to a certain kind of voyeur. Finally among the squawking radios and the barking voices the smoke would literally clear. There was a formidable crater in the Denny’s parking lot. Our companions, realizing like us, their automobile was among the perished, scrambled for transportation. My friend and I, suddenly fortunate, were returned to our hotel by what I am unwavering in believing were genuine, fully authentic Texas
cheerleaders, showing mercy to two bewildered cosmopolitans.
In the days that followed, there was little suspicion of a terrorist act. Local news speculated vandalism, or even more likely, accident. Explosives moving around in Texas were as commonplace as shiny boots. Things blew up with a tedious regularity, either for business or
pleasure, and no one was at all alarmed. Why, oh terrorist, blow up a Denny’s parking lot? But an investigation would ensue of course.
Naturally we managed to find our way home to Los Angeles eventually. It wasn’t a Latin American jungle we were stranded in, like our Wages of Fear compatriots. Only Texas.
It was six weeks later when I learned the nature of the great explosion. The agents came to see me in my little apartment there in Toluca Lake, quaint cranny of greater Los Angeles that it is. The two of them sat on my squeaky plastic sofa and earnestly began to expound. One had
unprincipled straw hair, and a lot of freckles, the other hollowed eyes and a thick, seven o 'clock shadow. It was the Alfalfa and Richard Nixon show.
But the source of the explosion was not benign. Told I had been a conveyor of nitroglycerin, I was at first terrified, fearing that in order to absolve myself I would be in the hopeless position of trying to prove a negative to the Federal Bureau, that I had never met, nor did I possess even a shred of knowledge about the owner of this volatile Toyota.
But it was apparent soon enough I had been checked out in full already, found to be nothing more harmful than a worthless Irish piece of shit trying to survive in Los Angeles. The perpetrators, I learned, were not Islamists, their ancestors never having dwelled on exotic desert
sands. Rather, they were a tiny bund of ultra-nationalists, white supremacists and so-called sovereign citizens. The militant wing of Dogpatch, in other words.
And like so many aspirants before them they had hoped to make a splash in L.A. The specific target remained unclear, but the first step in the villains’ plan was to move their nitro into our golden Southland. For this I had been conscripted as potential collateral damage, and from the standpoint of the villains themselves it was relatively clever, though clearly they had failed to think it through. The agents left, and for good or ill, my life returned to normal.
Not long after, my friend was married to a lovely, intelligent woman from Glendale, and with him, all was seemingly well.
I was left to wonder whether promises made in a booth at Denny’s, still would be remembered.
Produced from 100% Everything
Ken O'Steen is from Los Angeles, California. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Cleaver Magazine, British publication The Wolfian, Connotation Press, Litbreak, Sleet, New Pop Lit, British publication Litro, Whistling Shade and others. "Dinner at Musso and Frank," was included in the anthology, "The Muse in the Bottle: Great Writers on the Joys of Drinking."
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