Previously in The Continuing Adventures of Sparky & His Guardian Friggin’ Angel:
Sparky’s words: “Staining memories. Pineapple air freshener. Dwayne’s incessant blab. A fat man preoccupied with his pain. Loud music. Mounting tension. And BOOM! Locked brakes. A car spun to a crooked standstill. Dwayne’s back to the tarmac. Confusion as Eke—our ticket away from Elly May and her shovel-wielding father—steps off a cliff. Then, sunrise in our eyes, Eke’s Karmann Ghia follows him down, down, down, and explodes. A blur of places and faces, of riding and walking, of day and night and day then leads us to South Carolina, or Georgia, on our bellies in a field. Studying the trains that roll through here.” What next? Read on!
I save Dwayne’s life, he saves my life, and then another life is lost.
It all happened so fast, tragically, but we lived through it—again.
Memories stain my consciousness. Strong pineapple air freshener. Cramped backseat in a small car. Dwayne’s incessant blabbing to pry good times from imagined recesses of a man’s psyche (or from his pot stash), our driver, a stranger preoccupied with his pain. Booming music. Tension building. And BOOM! Angry words. Brakes lock and we spin to a crooked standstill. Car doors fly open. Dwayne being thrown from front seat to tarmac. Then freeze-frame confusion as Eke, the guy who was transporting us away from Amos and the rest, froze, gasping and gagging. Dire moments, as we watch Eke step off a cliff and into a chasm.
Cold. Fear. Sadness. Shock. Panic.
Until sunrise in our eyes, we make Eke’s Karmann Ghia follow him down, down, down, and witness the explosion far below.
Bad memories hump worse memories from one day to the next. Today’s memories stumble into last week’s—it’s the baggage you’ve carried but it’s not. Because everything has changed. You evolve to keep your personal narrative intact. There is the danger of the psyche crumbling. Discerning facts from wishful thinking or self-pitying fantasy becomes nearly impossible and the attempt begs the question: Aside from the present moment, now, which is often too confusing to grasp, what is life but false memories?
Time turns truth into a fork in a glass of water. Distorted. Subjective.
Blame is discarded quickly. What is is. Survival is paramount. Simply surviving our present. One moment, then the next. A series of steps. So many steps.
It’s a blur of places and faces, of riding and walking, of day and night and day until here we are in South Carolina, or Georgia, on our bellies in a field. Studying the trains that roll through here.
Our last ride was with a man who claimed to be a hobo (despite his not too shabby Ford Focus). Once a hobo, always a hobo, he said. Your brain gets rewired, he said, and went on an extended tangent about his years hopping freight trains. Catching out.
Dwayne, for once, held his blather at bay and listened.
Since exiting Reformed Hobo’s Focus, Dwayne insists we can hop one and “catch a free friggin’ ride out, Spark.” A stupid idea. An asinine idea. A fucking ridiculous idea. Trains hit speeds of like sixty miles per hour—meaning it would require super human strength for someone to get hold of and hoist his/her body up onto a car. In other words: a miracle. But Dwayne insists that he’s an angel—a “factoid” proved (he says) when he “friggin’ insulated me and then lugged me up that sheer goddamn incline.”
And what can I say to that? I would have to be very bored or drunk to argue Dwayne’s claim.
He says, “The hobo guy said that sharp goddamn bend in the track right there”—Dwayne points a finger—“causes the trains to slow to like twenty miles an hour. Or less.” This is true, they do slow. He adds, “If we time it right, we’re friggin golden, Spark!”
But that’s one big if from where I’m standing—exhausted and not recovered from recent weeks’ injures—but, again, who wants to debate foolish speculation with Dwayne Handy?
Now, with the sun setting, there’s zero way I’m going to attempt hopping a freight train.
“Alright,” Dwayne concedes, “we’ll camp here.” Reminding me, “Patience, Spark.”
Today has been filled with Dwayne’s foolish, dangerous attempts to hop a train, hours that give him only lumps and scrapes but that provide me with entertainment—watching his botched tries, seeing him flip off the side of a moving train is comical, because he suffers no serious injuries. My laughter would die quick if he didn’t rise from a digger, or if he were finally successful and rode away on a train. I wonder, how would I feel? Free? Lonely?
And then he does it. He’s on the side of a freight train, waving. His dismount is not so smooth, but that doesn’t matter. Dwayne has proved that it is possible.
“Fuckin’ fuck,” he cheers.
Another train comes and he shoots from his cover in the bushes and does it again. And again. His dismounts are better each time.
Running to where I sit, he says: “Tomorrow morning we’re outta here, Spark!”
Now I know that when I’m following Dwayne’s lead nothing goes as neatly as planned. It’s like he is the wrench in his own plans. And for this reason, as we wait for the morning’s first train, I say: “Maybe we should walk again. I mean, even if we manage to hop a train, who knows where we’ll end up?”
“Where the hell are we?” I say, when we’re off the train and watching the distance swallow it.
“Not in the friggin’ train yard. After hearin’ about them bulls’ (train yard cops) wrath…shit! Right here’s A-OK.”
“We don’t even know that there was a train yard coming up.”
“Spark. The fuck. We’re makin’ progress…on our friggin’ road to nowhere, so why bitch? I was playin’ it safe’s all.” He scans our surroundings. “After a campfire and some Zs over there. We’ll catch a new train. Bright and early. Tomorrow.”
Easier said than done. There is no bend in the track here.
In the time it takes for the morning sun to travel across the sky and hang halfway between high noon and the western horizon (probably two or three in the afternoon), we are exhausted, sore and frustrated from our attempts to leap aboard a speeding train.
“Yeah. Tougher than I friggin’ figured…but those train robbers did….”
“They had horses and guns and stopped the train.”
“I got it!”
This Eureka! cry from Dwayne sets off a warning bell that jangles my spine, and this alarm that has become all too familiar has me wordless.
“It’s fittin’ together like Grandpa Jigsaw.”
“Grandpa Jigsaw Puzzle?”
“Listen. And don’t jump the tracks”—he smiles—“till I finish.”
I sip water from my canteen. Our canteen, since Dwayne has severely limited gear, all of it purchased at thrift shops with the last of the money he had when we first joined forces.
“All’s we gotta do, Spark, is create a diversion—”
“Doesn’t sound like something I’m gonna like.”
“No, no. It’s fine. And it will friggin’ work. I just gotta think…”
I let him. I take a walk and relieve my bladder. I choose the long route back, circling through a stand of trees in search of blackberries or other edibles. I had a book on wild plants that I lost on my third day out; I wish I had it now. I am, however, nearing Dwayne, close enough to see his excited expression, along with the growing shiner he received in this morning’s fall. He hasn’t shaved in days and has stubble everywhere.
“I got it!” he calls.
“You said that.”
“No, Spark, this’s I got it part two!”
I ease myself onto the grass.
“Does it involve horses, bandanas and six-shooters?”
“We throw a body across the tracks!”
“If you’re asking for volunteers, count me out.”
“We’ll make a scarecrow, only this’ll be a scare-engineer. Clothes stuffed with grass and leaves, maybe one’a your hoodies, so no face’ll be visible!”
“That’s gonna stop a train?”
“What, they gonna pull a hit-n-run choo-choo?”
“Say they do stop, then what?”
“We climb aboard.”
“You don’t think they’ll figure out that someone pranked them, that that someone, us, probably boarded the train? They won’t check the cars? Assuming they miraculously don’t see us throw the body…”
“Sure it’s a risk—that’ll be lessened when they see the kids boltin’ off.”
“That, Sparkiola, is our challenge. We find volunteers.”
A long fuckin’ walk under the cover’a trees on the side’a whatever highway we’re trudgin’ now. But arrivin’ I smile cause this’s pay-dirt. It’s a medium size town, a bona fide pot’a nuggets that most days’re watched over by one’a them famed Irish stumpy dudes with fiery hair and beard—the exact color as Sister Clampett long locks!—and the shamrock green little suit.
“You see the rainbow?” I says to Spark, who, bein’ tangled in burn victim befuddlement, only manages a lost-at-sea squint outta the hood. “What I’m sayin,” I go on, “my little French fried accomplice, is—look.” I give Sparky a couple beats to assess our whereabouts. “We’ve struck friggin’ gold!” Yessir. This old time-y Main Street coulda been doorknob-yanked like the wrong tooth, a perfect tooth, straight outta Norman Rockwell’s artistic jawbone. “It’s the answer, Spark. Couple, three boys’s all we need from this slice of Americana pie!” A peek skyward educates me on the hour. “And if they ain’t bustin’ outta school this very momento, they will be soon.” Then, magical-like, a trio’a squeaky-voiced boys glide by on bikes.
Clarence the guardian angel wigglin’ his finger in the American pie?
Before Spark can stop me, I go: “Hey, young dudes!”
Bein’ the kind that listen to bigger bozos while keepin’ that no-doubt-about-it mischievous glint in their hand-shaded eyes, their bikes brake to a stop.
“Ready to make a few bucks?”
Their bikes wheel around, so the punks’re no longer lookin’ over their shoulders, and form one’a them covered wagon circle-deals (‘cept they got bikes) with me and Spark in the center. They’re waitin’ for details.
“Fifty buckaroos each?” And to win a smile and maybe even a chuckle: “Wait. We don’t got no choirboys here, do we?”
They smirk a group fuck you, mister.
Their wise crackin’ expressions hold.
“You a buncha little nose-up-the-police-chief’s-ass dudes?”
“Hey,” says one’a the pricks, a kid with so many freckles he might be part black, “we stopped when you said money. But screw your dopey questions. You some pedophile? If you’re lookin’ to get sucked off, mister, you best look elsewhere,” he goes on, and his barbwire response and laser beam glare makes my goddamn heart to swell with respect.
“Fair enough. The job I’m proposin’ ain’t got nothin’ to do with freaky shit, alright?”
No nods but their stares stayed glued to mine.
“Okay. So we’re willin’ to pay all’a yas, to…stop a train in its tracks.”
Eyes narrow like it’s a bullshit riddle, but the bikes roll closer.
“See, we gotta stop the freight train that chugs by, up the road a ways”—I point—“and we can’t get seen.” I’m takin’ endless fuckin’ risk askin’ these juveniles to be delinquents, a threesome’a strangers that’re maybe fourteen, but I got that lucky feelin’. Lucky like feelin’ Clarence grinnin’ warm at me from his star. Fact is, I hear the cha-ching’a me gettin’ my wings.
“Got a plan?” says a second kid, this one taller and uglier, which gives me hope. Ugly equals outcast in most little asshole towns (I speak from friggin’ experience), which’s what I’m hopin’ for—Spark’s got no clue what comes next. Truth is, I smell his nervous-induced B.O..
“Is there, like, a cooler place to talk details round here? Or better, not around here?”
Tall-n-Ugly signals the third kid, who’s in a Leave It To Beaver button-up school shirt, to get on behind him and give us his bike, and me and Spark on the junior-size ten-speed, we’re off.
Soon we’re led into a friggin’ dirt area— dirt mounts and dirt cliffs and dirt roads—and we’re all off the bikes, sittin’ on dirt in a circle. Without a friggin’ word, Tall-n-Ugly sparks a joint. This’s killer weed and my light bulb Eureka moment’s turnin’ better than I figured.
“I was thinkin’, a life-size doll,” I says between tokes, “a scarecrow kinda deal.”
Beaver takes a veteran stoner hit and holds it.
I go on: “Lay it on the tracks—”
“Set it on fire,” says Freckles, gigglin’ like a lunatic. “Burning body! On the tracks! Tee-hee!”
“Set the whole field up in flames, stupid!” says Tall-n-Ugly, who carries the air’a the leader. To me, he goes: “He’s an arsonist. Been settin’ fires for years.”
“Has he been caught?” says Sparkola, who’s been quiet as a deep-fried mouse till now.
Freckles the Firestarter shoots his hood a look. “No way. The cops…they’re dumb as cow shit.”
“What’s with the creepy hood, anyway?” says Tall-n-Ugly. “Feels like we’re in a slasher flick.”
I give it a sec, and when Spark’s not spewin’ the old-to-us-but-headline-news-to-these-punks, I grab the talkin’ torch: “Meet Sparky. He got his friggin’ skull arsoned”—and I give Firestarter (formerly known as Freckles) a you-stupid-shit look—“and he’s been hid in hoods ever since.”
“What?” says Firestarter, his voice gone high with friggin’ excitement. “You?”
“Hey! It’s no fuckin’ joke! Some goddamn clowns snagged him at his own birthday party, when he was drunk, and got him to drink some flammable and, though prob’ly by accident, they lit up his noggin and ran.
Maybe it’s the weed but all three of ‘em got moronic smirks, like somethin’s funny about the kid gettin’ torched. Little piss-ants, but I figure what the fuck do they know about the shit Spark had to endure? Even me, Spark’s best friggin’ friend, all’s I can do’s imag-ignite the horror.
Beaver Cleaver, who musta sleuthed my lack’a true been-there-done-that understandin’, says: “Sorry, man.”
“They catch the guys?” says Firestarter.
Tall-n-Ugly shakes his outta-alignment face, like he cares, which he might—they all might—but un-recognizin’ the fault line’a smile that runs across all their young thug mugs ain’t easy cause’a me bein’ Spark’s guardian friggin’ angel and all, but I only go: “Naw. And catchin’ culprits ain’t the friggin’ point. The pointy end’s that Spark’s melted and bein’ melted’s left him feelin’ people won’t accept him. Cause there’s more scar than regular face. A factoid that leads to a guy frettin’ over his bad looks—‘specially when he’s kickin’ dust with a goddamn good-lookin’ dude such as yours truly.”
Firestarter makes a face like he’s holdin’ back a guffaw.
“Alright. Listen. I been around a couple friggin’ blocks. I know it’s easy to get tickled over some clown gettin’ his foot stuck in some bucket and cartwheelin’ down a flight’a stairs or some kinda cartoon mishap or Dick Van Dyke somersaultin’ over furniture, but that’s TV. This ain’t. And if one’a you fucks so much as snickers, I’ll tie your asses to the track, spill some gasoline, and drop a match. Then we can all laugh—”
Spark says: “Dwayne, it’s okay.”
“Hey, man, we just came ‘cause you said money—” Tall-n-Ugly’s mouth’s open like he’s got more syllables to spit—when Spark removes his hood.
No one in the badass juniors group gasps or shows disrespect, which’s good—I woulda returned the disrespectin’ disflavor with some’a the frustrated wrath that’s been brewin’ since I lost Elly May to a shovel and Eke walked into the canyon.
“Thought we were makin’ a plan,” says Beaver. “To stop a train.”
“When you want us to do the deed?” says Tall-n-Ugly.
“And why?” says Firestarter.
“So we can hop the train and continue our journey.”
“Where ya headed?” says Firestarter.
Spark shrugs, like there ain’t no answer—which there ain’t—but my mental pistons’re firin’ like a motherfucker, ‘cause we need these kids to be on our side and not to confess to whatever crime we manage, if the cop kitchen gets hot, and I go: “There’s a burn doc in LA who fixes faces like Spark’s. Guy’s a wizard with skin grafts and the like.”
A second doobie makes the rounds and we all inhale deep and feel the buzz.
Just when my buzz has reached table-saw-whinin’-through-thick-wood proportionates, a hawk shrieks and, lookin’ up, I spy him and figure it’s just Clarence keepin’ an angelic eye on us.
Tall-n-Ugly speaks: “Dude, we’ll make a scarecrow so real the engineer’ll think it’s his sister.”
“Okay,” I go, likin’ his enthusiasm.
“But no one gets hurt,” Spark tells ‘em.
“Now about payment,” says Tall-n-Ugly. He stands up like he’s king’a the friggin’ dirt pit.
“Well,” I begins, keepin’ my seat, “about that…” The cloth Elly May gifted me slides up, up and outta my pocket. I unfold it and the boys blink at the rings.
“What’s that?” says Firestarter.
“Pure fuckin’ gold.”
“You said fifty bucks each.”
“One’a these’s worth three times that. But I’m in a good goddamn mood so we’ll call it even.”
“Come on,” says Tall-n-Ugly. “There’s a shop in town that buys gold. If those are gold, old man Donahue’ll know it.”
“Donna who?” I says.
“Donahue runs the place that buys gold and diamonds and shit,” says Firestarter.
“Old guy,” Beaver adds.
Forcin’ myself to believe that Jethro’s sister wouldn’t’a sent me off with worthless rings, I go: “Lead the friggin’ way, hoss.”
In town, Tall-n-Ugly singles out a shop in a row’a shops that are all part’a the same building.
And goin’ in alone —since Spark’s hood looks too shifty and the kids know the guy—I says: “Hi there. Nice to meet yas.”
The guy—a true geezer with like three white comb-over hairs, a week’s worth’a white whiskers, and watery eyes—just gawks. Probly ain’t seen a good-lookin’ stranger such as myself inside his shop for some time.
I go: “So. I got these rings, family heirlooms, and a little birdie told me you pay cash for gold.”
“Let’s see what you’ve got there.” His round pony keg belly presses the glass case as he leans to get a gander at the Clampett goods, and I’m reminded of an alcoholic Santa. In poor health. Mrs. Claus passed, old Donahue started shavin’. But seein’ as it’s tough for an old Santa to learn new tricks, he don’t always remember the razor. And he quit the red and white suit. Prob’ly barbecued up Rudolf and the rest’a the team. “Pretty nice,” he says, “but I can only buy one.”
“Sure thing, Pops…why?”
“Well, first, my bet’s that you have no paperwork proving these are yours…”
I open my mouth.
“And second, I don’t have that kind of cash.”
This news perks up my listenin’ apparatatus.
“This one ring, why it’s worth, mmm…seven?”
“Seven hundred dollars. At least. You might be able to finagle more if you were to go on down to Birmingham or somewheres bigger, but I don’t know. You got papers on these?”
“Musta left ‘em in my other jacket.”
“Yep. So. I try to be fair…and seven’s about all the fair I got.”
Though my lips ain’t parted, my chin might as well be bumpin’ my chest, like an old screen door hittin’ the sidin’ on a windy day. But I keep my wits: “Seven fifty? Was Granny’s after all.” Now I’m picturin’ Granny Clampett and recallin’ the granny sound that came outta me when Eke was all bug-eyed and gasp-y, which inspires in me a return-to-the-scene’a-the-crime giddiness.
“Seven twenty’s the best I can do,” says alkie Santa.
“Seven twenty-five and I’m outta your hair.” Eyeballin’ his serious lack’a hair, graspin’ that this might not’a been choice phrasin’, and bein’ generally over-fuckin’-joyous at seven hundred and anythin’ has me close to dancin’ a North Pole jig.
Old man Donahue’s hand shoots out and it’s a hand that should be attached to the arm of a baby. Smooth and pink—but withered. And on this bulbous-bellied ex-Santa the palsied baby-hand is ridiculous. Hilarious. Passing cash, the little hand tickles my bigger paw and I start snickerin’.
Thinkin’ quick: “Sorry. Just rememberin’ how my granny danced wild and wooly when she got divorced from her second husband”—then my imagination kicks in—“gettin’ ripped on red port, strippin’ and doin’ some exotic—and erotic, let me tell you, sir—hip gyratin’ boogies on her oak coffee table.” I shake and snort with laughter imaginin’ Imaginary Granny doin’ her imaginary strip club dance. I’m still spillin’ silly laughter as I clutch the seven twenty-five and shut the door behind me. Real life tears dribble from my chin.
“Dwayne. What happened? You okay?” Spark says when I get to him.
“Yeah,” I sputter.
The boys wait a ways away on their bikes. They look alarmed ‘cause I ain’t laughin’ now, I’m flat-out cryin’. For Eke and Elly May and due to fatigue. I wipe tears and dole out payment.
And the next mornin at like six, Tall-n-Ugly’s Converse high-top toe nudges me to wakefulness.
“Train comes by at 10:10 and we need to get everything in place.”
“Right.” I stand, collect my beddin’. “Remember, those train brakes grind, you kids’re gone, and don’t forget the ski hats.”
He shows me his knit number with the eyes and mouth holes. And the trio goes to work, twistin’ wire into female shapeliness, stuffin’ her bra and brown sweater and faded jeans tight with white stuffin’, and they set a rubber Halloween princess mask on the wire and ace bandage head and a wig (red hair, wouldn’t you know it) on top’a that, so that when I’m on the tracks, just thirty feet away, she looks goddamn real.
“You made goddamn Elly May Clampett,” I cry out in an odd mix’a joy and heartache, ‘cause the truth I’m realizin’s that if I could’ve, despite the inbred and kinda grotesque lack’a defined facial features, I would’ve swiped Jethro’s sister off’a hillbilly compound and brought her with us. And beholdin the facsimile stretched across the tracks, I’m imaginatin’ Elly May’s pumpkin-hued pussy puff and the sex we shared (till her Pa’s shovel fell), and damn but I just wanna go back and make things right.
“Elly May had blonde hair,” calls Beaver. And maybe spooked by the spooky look on my face as I trot up, he adds: “Didn’t she?”
“Looks fuckin’ awesome, aye, Spark?”
He agrees—as the punks crack up.
Dwayne has again accomplished an idea I perceived as half-baked at best, an idea I knew would never work, and now it just might. And our three young employees, after seeing my fire-induced tragedy, rose to the criminal occasion. They have in fact surpassed all expectations. The boys—probably all of thirteen years old—built a woman, positioned her supine on the tracks, and their sculpture is sure to fool the most eagle-eyed engineer.
We all hide in our spots and wait for the train.
But not for long. As the train moves into view, its horn sounds. And again. Air brakes squeal.
Straight from Dudley Do-Right’s world, she is a classic damsel in distress. A damsel who is not about to allow the freight train passage.
It screeches, squeals and roars to a stop.
A man disembarks, takes steps toward the “woman”, yelling out questions that abruptly become angry exclamations.
According to our plan, the boys wail hideously, drawing the men’s attention (a second man has jumped from train to track-side rocks), giving us time to hustle up the side of a box car and onto the roof—no hopper cars, with their nice wedge of space at each end, in sight—as recommended in a documentary Dwayne once watched. “Roof’s best, Spark. We lay flat, they can’t see us.”
Our ruse works; the men disappear into the front of train; and after long minutes we are rolling.
A stupid idea, riding on the roof. It’s windy and cold and hanging on is a challenge.
Those movies where people fight train-top are bullshit.
Of course it might just be me. Heights scare me. Add high speed and I’m petrified. Sweaty, cold, shaking. A certainty settles upon me: We are going to die.
Fortunately, we stashed our packs and bedrolls between huge, secured containers on a flat car—they would have blown away as soon as the train hit its stride. As it is, when the train stops we will retrieve our belongings. We just have to watch out for railroad police. Bulls, they’re called.
“Spark,” Dwayne hollers, though he’s hard to hear.
Dwayne’s upright, staggering slightly with the train’s movement. He extends his arms from his sides. Flaps—and he’s gone.
I blink my terrified eyes.
Dwayne is completely fucking gone.