“Yeah, he sounds like a ‘prince’.” Jon sneered as he silenced all those crying doves with one jab of his bony finger. When he did, the Rebel’s radio switched over and the Southern thump of Molly Hatchet filled the old car’s darkened interior. This pleased my best friend greatly and he settled back in the passenger seat, a picture of Country Boy Cool in his cowboy boots, faded jean jacket and wispy blonde hair. Too bad he topped out at 95 pounds. Of course I wasn’t a hell of a lot huskier myself - at 16 years of age, I weighed in at maybe 110 pounds, provided I stuff the pockets of my baggy khaki pants with extra quarter rolls for the Galaga machine at Take Ten.
That was precisely my destination on that distant Fall evening. The last of the autumn afternoon’s long shadows had since grown together and draped the back roads of Wayne County in unseasonable darkness. Not that I noticed, mind you. With my hand slung over the wheel and sockless feet swathed in faded Vans, all I could think of was the romance to be had on the selling floor of Berkeley Mall - Goldsboro’s only shopping mall and premier punk-ass hang-out. After a slice of greasy pizza and a few distracted video games in the arcade, Jon and I would strut and preen along with the rest of the food court hoodlums of 1983. First though, I had to get there…
I was well on my way I ran afoul of physics, friendship and fuel efficiency. It started with an old lady in a wood-paneled station wagon; the back of her blue had lit up my by cocksure headlights. When she insisted on navigating the twisty rural road at a reasonable rate of speed, I gunned the engine of my aging chariot and blew the proverbial doors of Grandma’s Vista Cruiser. That I executed this particular move on a blind curve didn’t seem to bother either Jon or me. Apparently we were wearing our childhood cloaks of immortality along with copious amounts of Polo cologne. Whatever the reason, we just cackled like dumb school kids as I clipped the edges of the winding two lane road. When a low-slung Camaro tapped its brake lights up ahead, I stood on the 17 year old car’s accelerator and sang along with Molly Hatchet:
“Yeah, I’m travelin’ down the road and I’m flirtin’ with disaster…”
As if to prove it, I veered over into the oncoming lane and tried to pass the Camaro before the narrow road doglegged to the left. I’d just gotten past the screaming muscle car when the white-hot glare of headlights blanketed the Rebel’s windshield. In an instant that still feels like slow motion, I swerved back over into my lane, almost running the Camaro off the road in my haphazard attempt to get out of the way of the oncoming car. Through sheer luck and not experience I managed to squeeze past both cars without anybody trading paint. My driving prowess however was not refined enough to prevent my buddy riding shotgun from exploding in threats and curses and judging from the rapidly growing headlights in my rearview mirror, he wasn’t alone in his wrath.
When I realized I was being chased, I punched it. Looking back that was probably a mistake, as the last sip of gas I had on board at the time surely turned to my fumes underneath my lead foot. But having grown up on fresh ‘Dukes of Hazzard’ episodes, I knew only to floor it and I sure wasn’t about to falter on my very first high speed pursuit. That’s not to say I wasn’t frightened, as I trembled in my vinyl Members Only jacket as the Camaro’s headlights smothered the Rebel in its angry glare. ’ Don’t sweat it dude, we’ll lose in him town.” I offered bravely, lost in the youthful bravado borne of a dozen Starsky and Hutch reruns. In my rearview mirror, the Camaro closed in, almost bumping the Rebel’s rear as the road stretched out straight before us. I’d almost convinced myself I could ditch the angry driver once I reached the city limits when the last of the gas evaporated and my means of escape began rolling to a slow stop.
Inside the Rebel, reality set in. While my best buddy Jon fidgeted in his denim and cursed the day he met me, I sat frozen solid to my side view mirror, hypnotized by what I saw. The Camaro had pulled up within inches of my crippled steed; when the door opened the dueling gee-tar work of Lynyrd Skynyrd poured out, followed by the biggest hillbilly silhouette I’d ever seen. As the hulking mass rose to his full height and stomped toward my door, the tunnel vision started. Swinging my head from side to side, I took in swirling images like a punch-drunk prizefighter: the knuckle dragger closing in on my side of the car, the fuel needle buried left of the ’E’. my best friend cradling his own door handle and waiting for the best possible moment to bolt, leaving me to deal with Hood Swamp’s angriest felon all by my puny lonesome.
‘What the hell was that back there?” the hulk-billy roared at my rolled-up window. When I didn’t answer he landed a ham-sized fist on my driver side door, jolting the car and instantly purifying a good portion of my bowels. “We ran out of gas.” I offered weakly as the giant grappled with the door handle and cursed a Southern blue streak. Throughout all this, I did what any underage dumb-ass would have done - I scrambled to Jon’s side of the car and nearly gouged his eye out trying to open his door in the darkness, wanting only to run as fast as I could from the roadside, the Rebel and the redneck. That’s when the angel spoke.
“Styu-wert? Is that you?” Though I couldn’t see her for the towering inbred clawing at the door, I immediately recognized Rene’s voice. A friend of my older brother’s, she was all too familiar with my fondness with my own voice. Despite this, she chose to save me that fateful evening.
“Leave him alone, Charlie!” she spat at her colossal date. “That’s Richard Pittman’s little brother - He ain’t nobody!”
“He’s gonna be a dead nobody, he don’t learn to drive!” With that Charlie planted one more fist square and deep in my car door, then spun on his boot heels to shoo Rene back in the Camaro - where they were no doubt now late for the romantic tour of some tractor pull or another. As they pulled off, Charlie flipped me a big fat middle finger and mouthed an obscenity through his Rally Sport's own smoked glass. Showering my car with gravel, the Camaro sped off, leaving me with my entrails intact, my gas tank empty and my young friend nearly catatonic.
“So,” I said eyeing the farm house lights in the distance and thinking about the rusty gas can in my trunk, “you still feel like pizza?”