The Worst Way to Go
There was this time in Houston once when I did something that's been hanging around in my mind over the years, tucked down inside of me like a lucky charm that I don't want to lose, and ever now and then I take it out and admire it a little when I need something to fall back on that makes me feel like I'm not so much a loser as I sure seem to be. I used to think about it from time to time, but in the past couple of years it's come back to me lots more since I don't seem to have too many things to be all that proud of these days.
Back when I was working nights at the downtown bus station for a while sweeping floors and scrubbing out toilets and pinching gum off the bottom of seats and picking up other people's trash and having lunch at the counter where they had good meatloaf and a waitress named Holly that I tried to screw but never got to, one night when I just got off work something happened that I won't never forget.
There was this old boy working there named Duval who had a fine Harley hog that was sure enough fast and loud and mean and chrome as a mirror and it was just about as big as he was. He worked at the bus station too only he had a good job as the night man loading up the buses, and me and him got to be friends, which was good for me cause I didn't usually have many of those. He used to tell me all about going off places with his biker friends and how him and his old lady would sometimes take off on a weekend and take blankets with them and ride off over in the Hill Country where they'd camp out by a river and smoke dope and screw a lot and just watch the sun coming up. He talked about things I knowed I'd never do and it was cool listening to him ramble on about days on that bike and how much he loved "Baby" as he called his Harley. He always told me how great it was when the sun was shining down and the road was long and smooth and the pavement rumbled up through your legs, and I could see how it was something that could take a hold of you. I sure wished lots of times that I had my own Harley that I could jump on when things got a bit too tight or there was too many people yelling at me or maybe just when the toilet was all backed up at the station and they sent me in to clean it all out and mop up the piss on the floors. I liked jobs where I just got to do easy things and didn't have to do a lot of thinking, but there was times when I realized I might be spending the rest of my life mopping up piss, and stories like what Duval told me just made me think more and more about what kind of life I could have if I could just get lucky. About the only way anything good was ever going to happen to me was if a bolt of lightning come down and a million dollars just dropped right in my hands so I could go off and do whatever I felt like and never have to mop up after nobody no more.
But anyways, at the station, sometimes when a bus was running late, or when there was lots of people and lots of bags, they'd send me out to help Duval load and unload a bus or two that was coming in and going out. Now, Duval was a big old boy, with arms that looked like drill pipe out of an oil well, and he could have probably unloaded a bus by picking up it up on its side and just shaking all the bags out, but they sent me, a skinny little stick, out there to help him anyway. I remember it was one of them hot sticky summer Houston nights where by the time you finish working you've sweated up a good stink and the air is so still it doesn't move enough to even take your own smell away from you. While we was loading up a bus going west I looked at the tags and thought about where them bags and the people that owned them was going that night, and I asked Duval if he'd ever been out that way. "Me and Tami rode to Colorado a couple years ago and had a blast," he told me. "You should see the mountains, up high and cool, and you just feel like you're born all over again when you see them peaks." While we loaded a ton of bags that night, I wondered if someday I could go to a place like that and be born again, and I sure hoped I'd be born something better than the first time around.
It was just about end of shift when that last 'Houndog bus we loaded up pulled out bound for some place I probly wouldn't ever go, leaving diesel exhaust fumes that smelled almost as bad as I did fogging up the air behind it, and me and Duval was done for the night.
While we waited for straight-up midnight so's we could punch out, we stood off out in back of the station in the dark where nobody could see us and lit up the rest of a doobie that Duval had left over from when he started working that afternoon. There wasn't no wind that night, so the smoke from that doobie just hung right there in the air with us like a big summertime rain cloud. While we cooled down after that work, I felt another kind of high too from thinking for a while that I was important, cause after all, I had loaded up a bus that was headed off across the country where folks was going to work and live and love, and I was helping them get there. There ain't much better feeling than doing something good just once in a while and then sitting back with a jay to hold that good thought for a little while longer than it lasted. "You like doing this stuff, Duval?" I asked.
"Yes, I do," he said with the kind of soft voice you don't often hear from a big man like him that told me he really did like the work, no matter how empty minded it might of been.
"How'd you get to doing this?"
"Just like you. I wasn't going nowhere and I didn't have nothing and I didn't know nothing, but I found something good and stuck with it."
"This bus job was what you found good?" I asked him, and he said, "No, what I found good was Tami, and if I wanted her to stick with me, I had to do something for a living and this turned out to be it." He told me as how Tami had settled him down and got him off the streets and got him to working regular, and he wasn't going to go back to where he'd been. He said he'd started off pulling up gum just like I did but he'd worked himself up to loading buses and pretty soon he planned to be a driver if they'd let him but he was a little worried about the two DWI's he'd had and afraid they'd try to hold them against him. "Aw they wouldn't do that," I figured, and then said to him, "Just don't tell them about it. That was a long time ago anyways." But Duval sucked on the weed and shook his head. "No, man, it's on your driving record. You don't have to tell them about it, they find it anyway," and that was the first time I heard of that, that companies could find out about all kinds of stuff like that about you and your shade past. "Man," Duval said, "There's some things you do in your life you just can't ever get away from, you know?" and I sure enough look back now and understand what he meant alright. I had my share of things I hoped didn't never show up on my driving record.
The buzz off that weed had got us good by then, so we sat there a few more minutes enjoying letting time crawl by, till I asked him if he wanted to maybe go off over to some places I knowed on the ship channel and see what kind of action was going on there but he said, "No, I better go, Larry. I got a good woman waiting for me and there ain't nothing over there I care to see no more."
Right then and there come a second that I always think back on when I get to thinking about what happened to Duval. Maybe it was a flash of lightning come up, I don't know, cause back then I wasn't seeing things all that clear even if the lightning had of hit right in front of my face, but there was a second when I just wished for all the world that Duval would go with me but I couldn't explain why. "Come on, Duval," I told him. "Let's go have a beer, just one," but he said No, Tami's Expecting Me And She Can't Go To Sleep Till I Get Home and there was some kind of light around him alright or maybe it was just the smoke from the weed hanging around his face but there was something there that I didn't understand but figured it must have to do with Duval living the right kind of life now. Duval seemed to have had some pretty low days in his life and now here he was working nights at the bus station loading up other people's underwear but all the same just feeling good about his life with Tami and his Harley. I don't know nothing about how premonitions work, but looking back it seems like I just had this feeling something was going to happen to Duval but I didn't have no idea what. Well about five minutes later I found out what it was cause when I was back in the station I heard Duval crank up Baby loud enough to wake up Moses so I went outside to see him go by. I was buzzed pretty good by then and when I waved at him as he pulled out, he looked over at me with his long hair blowing back behind him and he grinned and held out his hand with a thumb up in the air and gunned that hog so's he split off down the street like a whore after a roughneck's paycheck. Just as I turned around to go back inside and probly try to get a look at Holly's butt, I heard a sound I won't never forget in my life. It was just a quick little squeal of a tire on pavement and then a ka-whomp, a deep sickly sound of metal meeting metal and flesh meeting windshield, and when I turned around I just got the last glimpse of a big Buick sliding around in a spin with a Harley pushed into its side like it was dancing a two-step down the street. What I most remember and still see sometimes when I think about that time was the look on Duval's face. It was probly a hunderd feet away down there where Dottie the ticket seller at the station had got off at midnight too and gone out the back alley to turn on Fannin but turned instead in front of Duval and his Harley and Tami too and they was one piece of metal sliding across the street. It was a hunderd feet away in the streetlights of that summer night if it was a foot, but I swear I could see Duval's eyes as he went over the top of that car, open so wide in surprise and sadness, surprised and struck by pain and a big Buick, and there was a hollowness in those eyes that said he knew everthing that was happening to him and what it meant to him in his last moment on earth, but he didn't know why and maybe it was one of his flashes of lightning too that everbody has once when the lights are about to go out.
Well there they was, Harley and General Motors, dancing together right there on the street in some kind of shotgun matrimony, and when Duval landed on the pavement just beyond the unhappy couple, he skidded down the pavement and rolled a couple times till he stopped and just lay flat out on his back and didn't move no more. For a second I was totally dumbed out and couldn't make my feet move, but then somebody tore past me out of the station and went running towards them and I guess I woke up and went to running too. When I got there there was a sight I don't ever want to see again, and that sight was Duval laying on his back with his arms and chest and face all tore up and enough blood all over him that it looked like somebody'd poured a bucket of it out. And to top it all, there was more blood gushing up out of his leg like the water fountain at Hermann Park and running out into the street. Duval was just laying there with his eyes wide open and his mouth moving through what was left of his beard like he was trying to talk but there wasn't no sound. That other guy that had got there before me was standing there looking at that gusher like he was going to be sick and saying "God almighty" over and over again. Duval's life was draining out on the pavement while this dude just kept saying "God almighty" but couldn't move like he was froze into a Hermann Park statue himself. Well I looked down at Duval and seen his leg and the torn bluejeans and the blood pumping up in a red-purple gusher and I guess there was just something that took over and like lightning I knowed what to do. Somewhere's back in my school days I must of stayed awake in the first aid course at least one day, and though I couldn't of told you squat about bandages and burns and snake bites and heart attacks, somehow I remember what you was supposed to do for bleeding. I had this old rag in my pocket from wiping up spit off the floor but I don't guess there was much else to have grabbed, so I yanked it out of my pocket and put it right down on Duval's leg, right where the blood was coming out, up high on his thigh. Everthing was twisted up just a little bit from the dope in my head, and even while I was holding back Duval's life from draining out his leg, I thought it was a little funny cause I remember the way his pants was tore I could see his underwear and I remember thinking he wore purple shorts. I guess seeing them purple shorts and feeling the buzz I laughed a little to myself thinking about what kind of fun I was going to have ribbing him about them shorts but right then and there I just put my hands on Duval's leg and pushed down hard on that spot where the blood was pumping out and just like they told you in first aid course, it stopped the bleeding. Duval finally squeaked out at me one time, "Man that hurts", but I didn't want to look at his face and have to see him all tore up.
Mister God Almighty next to me finally come to his senses and took off running back to the station yelling "I'm going for help" and what seemed like the longest time but in my weeded out head probly wasn't but about two minutes later there was a cop car come pulling up with its lights flashing and a cop hopping out to take charge of things the way cops do. Then maybe a few minutes after that an ambulance roared up and when one of the medical guys got a tourniquet on Duval, I let go and just sat back there on the street and tried to concentrate on catching up with the world. The ambulance guy told me, "Good work, Buddy. He's pretty bad but if he pulls through, it'll be because you stopped his bleeding." The last I saw Duval was when they was putting him in the ambulance and he was mumbling a lot of nonsense, but one time I heard him real clear say "Take care of my baby". When I looked at that twist of chrome I knowed there wasn't much anybody could do for Baby any more than they was going to do for Duval.
So a few minutes later when Duval and the ambulance had blasted off down the street, the cop come up to me and said, "That was a good thing you done, buddy. Do you know who he was?" I did and I give him Duval's name and the fact that he worked at the bus station and we talked a few minutes more, and the thing I most remember right about then was how I was sure that the cop was on to me and knowed I was stoned and he was just jacking with me till he could catch me in a lie or something and have me busted. It's funny how when you're high that things like that runs through your mind, that they know, they all know, and you know they know, but I remember that all I could think of was trying to act cool so he couldn't prove I was loaded. Then somebody put a blanket around my shoulders, god knows why cause it wasn't cold, and then somehow all of a sudden I become the star attraction of the circus on Fannin Street. Somebody said, "You might of saved his life, buddy," but I couldn't think of nothing but trying to be cool so the cops couldn't bust me. "It was nothing," I said, "I'd of done it for anybody".
Well after a while I realized there was getting to be a pretty good crowd of people around that place even at midnight cause there was everybody from the station and three four five police cars and people that just always seems to show up at places where somebody else's blood is spilled. Old Dottie was sitting in the front seat of her car with the door open and her fat black legs hanging out in the street with those shiny hose and Redwing shoes for standing up all night and she was crying and crying and crying but it didn't look to me like she was hurt none. Most of the people was standing around the other side of her car where the front wheel of Duval's baby was buried in the Buick and there was spokes and shreds of tire sticking out of the fender and the handlebars was squeezed together, standing up straight. And what most people was looking at was that one stick of chrome handle that right up on the top of was a wad of bloody pink meat that come out of Duval's leg I guess when he went over the top of them. Them two pieces of metal, the Harley and the Buick, was sure enough mashed together so much that I figured they probly should just take it down to the museum and stick it in there like some piece of modern art and I guess the wrecker driver was going to earn his pay that night figuring out how to move that mess.
While I was sitting there looking at the wreck I heard somebody in the crowd saying "That's him. He's the one that got to him. Man, look at him!" and somebody else back there said "He looks like he's in shock himself," but then I had to stop myself from laughing cause what they didn't know was that the reason I was staring straight ahead so hard was because I was trying to get the buzz to go away and for everthing out in the street to stop spinning around.
While I was concentrating on making a manhole cover in the street stop moving, this young dude comes up to me and he's got a pad and pen in his hand and says he's a reporter and wants to talk to me, so we sat there a few minutes and he wrote down the things I said while I tried to remember it the way it happened but that buzz still had me and I might of mixed up one or two things. I saw the paper the next day and they had my picture in it but I don't ever remember anybody taking it. It was right next to the story that said "Motorcycle-Car Accident Claims One" and then underneath that it said It was nothing. I would have done anything for my friend and I thought it was a pretty good picture of me though I don't think I ever read all the story to see what they said, just the first couple paragraphs where it said "the victim was futilely aided by bystanders" and I guess that's what I was to the world, just a futile bystander.
But while I was sitting there, there was a couple more bikes come up with guys on them that jumped off when they saw the wreck and come over to see what was happening. Turns out they was friends of Duval's and was coming by to see him at quitting time but they was too late to be friends of Duval that night or ever again. Somebody told one of them what I'd done and this pony-tailed boar hog come over and sat by me too. "Hey man," he said to me and it seemed like I'd seem him somewhere before over on Industrial Avenue maybe but I wasn't sure. "Hey man, we 'preciate what you done for the Dog Man. They done called Tami so we're going down to the hospital to be with her. You want to go?"
Well I figured anything was better than sitting there on the curb so I agreed and when I stood up, one of the cops come over and he said, "Mr. Tieray, I'm going down to the hospital to finish my report and I'll give you a ride if you like," and for a minute the cop and the biker was looking at each other like I was the last cigarette in the pack and they was about to pull blades to see who got me. In the end I said to Duval's friend, "I sure enough want to go down there with you fellows but you have to excuse me right now if I don't feel too much like getting on a bike. Got sort of a bad vision in my head you might say," and the dude understood and he and his buddy got on their choppers and took off.
"I'm ready to go now if you are, Mr. Tieray," the cop said, real nice and polite to me, and when we started to walk to the car, the oddest thing happened. All the people that was out there and heard the story I guess, just started clapping their hands and for a second I didn't realize what they was doing, but then it hit me that they was clapping for me. I guess I looked a little pitiful right then with that blanket all around my shoulders and blood all over my hands and clothes and it seemed like all of a sudden I was the star attraction. The policeman opened the door for me real easy and gentle and helped me in the car then shut the door, pushing it closed like there was a baby sleeping or something while everbody was still clapping, and I guess I looked up and waved right then cause that's what the picture in the paper was the next day, of me sitting in the police car looking out at everbody only they had me down in the story as having been on the back of Duval's bike so I guess the story I give that reporter was a little more mixed up than I thought.
Well I got down to the hospital and there was more cops down there than I'd seen at a barroom stabbing though I guess most of them was there for other dudes that'd been shot, stuck, run over, beat up, car wrecked or pistol whipped, but somehow I guess I found out where Duval was and where it was right then was in the emergency room and right outside there they sat me down in some chairs to wait. I looked around at everthing that was there that night and alls I could see was pain. There was women and kids crying and there was groups of people all hunched over in their chairs talking quiet and there was men standing by the water fountain where I could hear one of them saying to the others, "They say he probly won't make it so we ought to start thinking about plans," and another group out in the hall with women crying and an old man telling their group "He'll pull through, I know it, just trust god, I know it" and it near made me cry just listening to folks in pain crying about other folks in more pain. There was some black kid dozing in the chair next to me and when I sat down he woke up and looked at me and rubbed his eyes and said "They find that dude yet?" but I didn't have no idea what he was talking about and I said "Huh?" and he said "Did they find the mother that shot him?" and I said He Didn't Get Shot He Got Stuck on His Handlebars" and the black kid looked at me like I didn't have no ears and then he leaned over and went back to dozing.
I guess I must of sat there about a half hour or so and the cop that brought me come over and said he was fixing to leave and did I need a ride anywheres. "Maybe back down to the station," I told him cause I didn't really know where else to go and I wasn't going to tell him where I really lived in case he figured out a way later on to bust me, and he said ok he'd be ready to go in a few minutes so I just kept sitting there. While I was waiting the door to the emergency room come open and them two biker friends of Duval's was coming out holding up a woman between them and she was crying so much I knew she had to be Tami. She wasn't no pretty woman and she was a little big in the thighs but she had long brown hair and her eyes was so red and so full of tears that she almost had a little girl look like she was crying cause her Daddy was going away. Well one of the dudes spotted me and pointed at me and they all three come over my way. I was still sitting there with that blanket and Duval's innards on me and they come right up to me, and when I stood up, Tami said, "Are you Duval's friend that tried to save him?" I looked into the saddest eyes I think I've ever seen and said I was, and she just come up and put her arms around me and hugged me for a couple of minutes. "I know you tried," she said, "and I know Duval would of been happy that one of his friends was there with him. I just want you to know how much I appreciate what you done." Well it hadn't quite sunk in on me just yet what had happened and I said "How's the Big Dog doing? They gonna let him keep them purple jockeys?" and she looked real funny and started crying again and turned away, and one of the dudes told me one more time that he appreciated what I'd done and they walked on away. I was still thinking of what I was going to say to Duval whenever they finally let me see him when the cop come up again and that's when I found out the sad truth of the end of Duval. "What's going on with Duval?" I asked. "When they gonna let me see him?"
The cop looked sad and put his hand up on my shoulder like a big brother telling his little brother that the dog had run away again and said, "Your buddy didn't make it, Larry. Too busted up inside, I guess. I'm sorry you lost your friend. I seen enough spuds lose it on a motorcycle, and I know, that's a terrible way to go, maybe the worst. It's a tragedy alright, but it could of happened to you too. You remember that. You were a lot luckier than him."
The cop give me a ride like he said he would and when I got back down to the station, I had to tell the whole damn graveyard shift about what happened cause all the swing shifters had done gone home and the gravers wanted to hear about it for themselves. As tired as I was, I stayed there all the way till morning telling anybody who asked about what had had happened to Duval, cause it sure made me the center of attention in that station that night to be telling everbody my story and having them feel sorry for poor old Larry. I must of told that story fifty times that night, and I guess maybe the story got a little bigger here and there, I admit, cause it seemed like there was memories coming back of things that I was pretty sure had happened or maybe would have happened if certain other things had happened and by a couple days later, people had heard that I'd jumped in and got his heart started up and had give him mouth to mouth waiting for the ambulance to arrive and I didn't see no point in telling them it wasn't entirely true if that's what they wanted to believe.
Well now that's when the good things started to happen. They give me off the next couple days from the bus station on account of my trauma and they even said they'd pay me sick time for it so who was I to argue. I don't remember ever having been give time off that wasn't for something I done wrong and I got to thinking right then that this hero business sits pretty well. So then since I was feeling pretty good I went over to the ship channel to the Triple XXX Club to look at necked women and what do you know, I walked in and there was the two biker dude friends of the Big Dog and they spotted me right off and bought me a beer. That whole damn night I didn't buy one beer or even my own cheeseburger and fries. I was just about the hottest thing in that place I guess and it seemed like everbody in there knowed the Big Dog and I couldn't hardly believe how many friends he had that come up to me and thanked me and told me some funny story about him. I thought about how good it must have been to have that many friends wishing you weren't deceased, but since they were buying me beers, I kind of got to thinking they was all my friends too, and it sure made me feel better to be a part of that happy group. Of course, with all the beer they was buying me I guess my answers got a little confused again and somewheres along the way I got to be a close personal friend of the Big Dog and it come out about the things he said to me while he was laying there on the street dying, all about how he wanted me to make sure Tami was taken care of and stuff like that. But then I got to thinking that even if that wasn't exactly true, somehow I knowed that he might of asked me to take care of Tami if he'd been able to say anything more to me that night. When he said "Man that hurts" I was pretty sure he was talking about how it hurt to leave Tami behind, and it was pretty clear to me what "take care of my baby" meant, too. Later on, one of the dancers took a fancy to me and I even got a little that night but I wasn't quite sure who she was doing it to since it wasn't my name she kept using whenever she was hitting her stride.
Looking back, that time was one of the times I felt most good about myself. I'd done something nobody else'd had the smarts to do that night with Duval, and even if I didn't save his life, all the folks around there knowed I tried and it felt good to remember riding in the front seat of that cop car instead of in the back, and having people clap their hands for what I done and having Tami and the bikers tell me over and over how much they appreciated me, and then all them folks at the station and at the Triple XXX patting me on the back and saying how wonderful I was. I don't think there'd ever been a time before or a time since that I had somebody do things for me cause of me, and it was a time I won't never forget.
But these days, now that a couple more summers have come and gone since that night, and that job at the bus station is long gone too, I often think about Duval and what that night had meant to both of us, with both of losing something. It's funny now, but when I get to thinking in the dark, when the air is still and the smoke from my grass hangs around my head, I remember Duval's last minutes just as clear as if it was yesterday even if I was buzzed out of my gourd that night when everthing really happened. It had hit me hard when Duval died, but what I'd thought about a lot of times since then was that cop saying I was the lucky one. I wasn't so sure about that. Duval had his Baby and his people to cry for him when he died and most of all he had his Tami that he'd of done anything for in the world including mopping up piss if he had to, but if it had been me backflipping over Dottie's Buick, they'd of just scraped me up and hosed down the street, and nobody would've even knowed who I was. That's the part that hit me the hardest, that if it had been me, nobody would of come to cry for me.
And when I think about it that way, I get pretty far down and blue. Not for Duval or Tami and all that they both lost, but for myself, just for me, cause ever time I think about when Duval died, what I remember most is how many friends he had that come to cry for him when he was gone. When my own time comes, and whether there's any motorcycles or Buicks or cops or bikers involved, or it's just me all alone in a cold room in the back of shed somewhere, there won't be no line of friends out the door like Duval had, and there won't be no Tami and there won't be nobody's tears dropping on the ground but mine. It'll just be me and whatever's waiting for me, and I figure that being alone when that dark comes down is just about the worst way to go of all.