“Oh sweet Jesus, we’re out of tequila,” Otto slurred from the passenger seat, flipping the empty bottle out the window. “There is no way we’ll make it through this fatal heat without more tequila.”
“You’re a liar,” I said, watching him out the corner of my eye. I didn’t like it when Otto was drunk and gloomy. It made me think he’d make a grab for the wheel and swerve us into a fiery crash, just for the hell of it. “We’ll be at the guru’s in half an hour, anyway,” I said. “What are you looking at?”
“Thought I saw him back there,” he said, peering out the Pinto’s rear window.
“That’s a lie. We left him in Denver. You said so yourself.”
“I think he’s catching up.” He slapped the Pinto’s dash and laughed. “Oh man, I just got a flash of the future!”
“Oh god, what now?”
“I saw us sitting on a crazy wooden porch with ol’ Guru Joe, hammering down mescal from his own secret still. Ol’ Joe sits there smoking a great hookah pipe, rolling out nuggets of wisdom like an ancient holy man, and we’re hunkered down like earnest young metalsmiths, painstakingly fashioning those nuggets into shiny masterpieces.”
I looked over from the freeway and smiled at Otto. He was a great bull-necked dumb brilliant brute of a man, a wild genius peering through the eyes of an ape.
A suicidal ape, I reminded myself, glancing at the thick bandages peeking from under the sleeves of his red plaid shirt like Victorian cuffs.
But none of that mattered now. We’d got the jump on the Death Angel and soon we’d see Guru Joe. Otto was convinced Joe would put us on the straight path, impart some vital truth, teach us the powerful spell that would allow Otto to slay the beast that would slay him.
A pack of vicious curs met us halfway down the sun-baked drive headed by Joe Jolowski’s mailbox. They harried us all the way to a miserable ramshackle slumped atop a low hill, yapping and jumping at our windows until a grossly overweight Native American in a black spandex mini skirt, quite possibly a transvestite, came out with a pool cue. She beat the mongrels savagely, shouting in some strange tongue until they retreated whimpering under the porch.
I rolled down the window one inch. “Fine work!” I congratulated. “We’re here to see Joe.”
“Reporters?” she barked, cue resting against gargantuan thigh.
“Good heavens, no,” I said, creaking false laughter. “We’re friends. Fellow drunks. Truth seekers!”
Without a word, she lumbered back up the creaking wooden steps of the porch and disappeared inside.
I turned to Otto. I said, “I’m not going in there.”
“Go on,” he encouraged. “They won’t bite you. She beat all the meanness out of them.”
“Who’s to say she won’t beat us? Why don’t you go first?”
“Oh? And who’s going to drive the getaway car when those curs jump on you like a pack of rabid wolves?”
I looked to the curs. They didn’t resemble wolves. They appeared skinny gargoyles, watching and panting beneath the porch.
Fifteen minutes later the heat began to lull them to sleep. The Pinto’s primer black skin absorbed the sun’s power as if it were specifically designed to do so. I was beginning to think I’d actually faint.
“It’s hardly fair,” I said, opening the door one centimeter. The curs opened their eyes, blinked at me, then went back to sleep. I got out very slowly and crept past the curs like a faithless Daniel. I was two tiptoes across the porch when I was joined by Otto.
A ruptured screen door lay on the porch floor like a drawbridge to the open doorway. I tapped the jamb with one knuckle.
“Come on in!” screeched a high male voice, then, “I’ll kill you, you sons of bitches!” followed by a loud whack!
“Where you going?” Otto demanded.
“Very far away.”
“No,” Otto hissed, putting his hand on my back. “Joe’s just testing our faith. Go on.”
“Quit shoving!” I said and in I went.
Joe Jolowski stood in the dim living room’s dead center, waving a bludgeon. His head was tremendously bald. In compensation he’d grown his beard longer than Moses’ and combed it up into a topknot. Under this bristling hood two facial ticks vied for attention: his teeth bared every few seconds and his right eye winked constantly, lending him the manner of a lascivious orangutan.
“The more you kill,” Joe whispered, “the more there are.”
“Why, yes,” I said and Joe lunged across the room with a terrible howl, swinging the rolled-up newspaper in a high arc at the flies buzzing around in lazy, almost scornful circles. He tripped over a low table and collapsed to the floor.
“They own me,” he sobbed, “they own me.”
“Perhaps you should fix the screen door,” I suggested, still cringed.
Joe looked up sharply. “Then what the hell would I do around here? What then?”
“You could play pool with . . .” I gestured to the click and roll of pool balls coming from the next room.
“Oh no!” Joe cried, springing up from the floor. “Angela takes her pool very seriously. You either let her win every game or she shoves her pool stick the last place you’d want it. She’s a direct descendent of a very powerful Apache chief and you cannot insult her.” Joe took another bounding swipe at the flies then dropped into a tense crouch. “Who the hell are you?”
“Truth seekers!” I warbled.
“Oh hell. I thought you fuckers had stopped coming.” He jabbed a gnarled hand at me. “Give me fifty dollars!”
“We don’t have fifty dollars.”
He kept the hand out for a minute, winking ferociously, then jerked it back. “Oh, the hell with you then,” he said, turning away. After a moment he peered back around. “Still here,” he moaned, throwing himself into a ancient rocking chair. “All right, what’s on your mind?”
“The Death Angel,” Otto whispered.
Joe winked and bared his teeth. “The who?”
“The Death Angel,” I said. “He wants to kill Otto.”
Joe regarded Otto. “How much do you owe him?”
“No, no,” Otto said, “the Death Angel. You know, the fiend that chased your hero in Hooch Junky.” Otto opened his ragged copy and began reading.
“’And the Death Angel, that great whore, woke me up with its crude cursing, demanding my soul and free liquor. I leapt up and ran into the desert, eventually to lay like doom-stroked lizard with broken back in the hot sand, begging the midday sun to kill me.’”
Joe screeched laughter. “I remember when I wrote that. Tequila hangover. Bleeding gums. The Death Angel in my bed, wanting to be paid. Gave me the black clap.”
“You slept with the Death Angel?” Otto gasped.
Joe frowned. “You know what tequila does to your judgement. A quart and you’ll fuck anything remotely human.”
“The Death Angel is human?”
“Hey, wait a minute,” Joe said, “she ain’t that bad. Before the . . . accident, she was the best-looking chicken ranch whore around.”
“The Death Angel is a chicken ranch whore?”
“What the hell did you think? That’s why we called her the Death Angel. In the dark she’s an angel, in the morning you wish you were dead.” He looked off and frowned. “Makes me wonder why I married her.”
I looked toward the pool room. “You mean she’s the—”
“We mean the real Death Angel,” Otto protested. “The embodiment of all the responsibilities and realizations of mortality society would heap upon our backs then bullwhip us to the grave.”
“What sort of gibberish is that?” Joe asked.
“Yours. You said it in Booze Beelzebub.”
“I did? I must have been loaded on mescal. Never trust a man on mescal. Anyone on mescal is full of shit, that’s rule two.”
“What’s rule one?”
“Men are born to die. We’re all marching to the grave, eyes on the backs of our ancestors, and there’s nothing to be done about it. So cheer the hell up.”
Otto frowned deeply. “I thought all your books were about breaking out of that workaday zombie deathmarch.”
“That’s right!” Joe said, jumping out of the rocker and waving his arms. “I tried to knock them off that foot-packed path with full-weight tackles! And do you know what those scumbags did to me for my trouble? They shaved my head and threw me in a cell full of howling sodomites!”
“I thought they locked you up for putting LSD-25 in Fresno’s water supply,” I said.
“Right! Exactly!” He shook his head sadly. “It’s best just to let them go to their graves. The sooner the better, I say.”
I watched Joe closely. From a distance he could easily be mistaken for a fullbore guru, up close he was just another bitter old drunk snarling at the ghosts of his past. No longer marching toward his hated prison of death, he camped outside its gates, waiting for his number to be called.
“But all your books say—”
“My books say nothing!” Joe screeched at Otto. “Everything my generation told you is bullshit! Time perverted and raped every word, made liars and whores of us all! All books come to grief!”
“What grief!” Otto cried. “How grim!”
“That’s not true,” I insisted. “Books influence the future. On The Road changed my life.”
“You think Kerouac gives a shit?” Joe snapped. “He’s a fucking corpse! There’s no glory in the grave!”
“No glory!” Otto cried. “What gloom!”
“Just be glad you’re not writers,” Joe sighed. “Then you’d be down in the deep shit-hole with me.”
“I’m a writer,” I mumbled and it was true. I’d written two nihilistic detective novels. The only problem was no one wanted to publish them.
“Oh god,” Joe groaned. “I should have guessed! Another failed masturbator!”
“Writing is masturbation! It’s worse than masturbation! Keep a writer supplied with hardcore porno and he’ll never write another word.”
Otto nodded. “I always suspected as much.”
“Huh!” Joe said. “And what are you?”
“Me? I’m a poet.”
“Poet!” Joe howled, rushing into the pool room. “Angela, get my fucking gun! Poet!”
Otto and I looked at each other.
“Just testing our faith,” I said. “Eh, Otto?”
“Run!” Otto howled. “Run for you life!”
We barrelled out the front door and the curs immediately set upon us, snarling and shredding our trousers with needlelike teeth. I kicked and cursed them, jerking the Pinto’s door open the instant Joe rushed onto the porch with a huge revolver. A bullet cracked over our heads and Otto forsook the Pinto, taking off down the drive in a deranged sprint, dogs hanging off his arms and legs like huge ticks.
Joe’s just trying to scare us, I thought and a bullet punctured the Pinto, exploding the plastic armrest two inches above my thigh. I spun the wheel and aimed for the drive but my treacherous right arm froze (as it is wont to do on such situations) and I ended up executing three high-speed donuts in front of the ramshackle. Joe saluted what he must have thought my suicidally insane bravado with great blasts from his revolver. Two slugs whanged off the Pinto’s skin before my faithful left arm could wrest the wheel away and point the Pinto down the drive, my back muscles tensed to receive a high-calibre slug. The next shot cracked over the roof like Jehovah’s own bullwhip and I caught up with Otto a hundred meters down the road. He rolled big whites at me then jerked the passenger door open and lunged inside.
“Kill them all!” he gasped, clawing at the wheel, trying to swerve the machine into the swarming pack. I grimly held the wheel straight, fearful of going into the ditch where, trapped like vermin in a hollow stump, Joe could finish us off at his leisure. The dogs gave up at the mailbox we squashed beneath our front bumper as we swerved onto asphalt and careened into Littlefield, California.
“Did you see that sonuvabitch?” Otto snarled. “The wiggy bastard tried to kill me! One of his bullets parted my hair! What the hell are you giggling at?”
I admit I was giggling, rather hysterically. “I didn’t think you could run that fast,” I said.
Otto looked off angrily. “And to think I thought that geek would help us. That dumb bastard doesn’t even know what his own books are about. All the wise men have turned into homicidal, whore-mongering liars.”
“You’re right,” I sighed, turning into a gas station. As I filled the tank I looked over the Pinto. While having less knowledge of things mechanical than an exceptionally dull Pre-Cambrian mongoloid, it appeared to me the bullets had missed the machine’s vital organs. I gave the attendant our last twenty and pocketed the change.
“Well,” I said, climbing behind the wheel, “what now?”
“How much money do we have?”
I took it out and counted. “Nine dollars and thirty cents.”
“Give it to me. All of it.”
“We need it for fuel.”
“Gimme!” he said, snatching at the cash. A brief bout of handwrestling ensued with myself coming out loser. Crowing with triumph, Otto jumped out of the car and ran cross the street to the Last Chance Food And Liquor.
Did I think about driving away? I admit with no little shame that I did. A powerful and sudden foreboding came to visit me as he disappeared inside that hooch shop, some primal self-preservation instinct crawling up through thousands of years of civilization and whispered that I should run like the devil and never look back.
Again it was my treacherous right hand that failed me. I willed it to put the car in first gear, but all it could do was shift through the gears over and over, first second third fourth and it was still doing it when Otto came out a moment later, twisting of the top off a liter bottle in a brown paper bag. He took a long pull as he crossed the street, another as he opened the door, another when he sat down. He passed me a satisfied look and pointed the bottle’s open mouth at my head like a gun. I sniffed at it.
“I hate mescal,” I said.
“Yeah, I know.”
He took another long pull then sighed and sank low in his seat. “Well, I guess it’s back to dirty ol’ Denver.”
“The Death Angel is in Denver.”
Otto shrugged and a black shadow of resignation fell across his face.
I was familiar with the look. My spine tightened and I suddenly sensed the Death Angel closing in, roaring out of the east like one of Wagner’s shrieking Valkyries, killing sword in hand. L’ange de la morte had Otto’s scent and soon it would be flapping outside the window, screaming at Otto, telling him to do unspeakable things.
“No,” I said like the resigned yet cowardly captain of a doomed ship. I put the Pinto in gear and started toward the freeway.“No going back. We must go forward. Ever forward!”
“Oh, what’s the use?” Otto said, glumly sucking the bottle. “You heard what ol’ bastard Joe said. We’re all marching and there’s nothing to be done about it.”
I cackled at him. “You poor fool! You still don’t get it, do you?”
“Joe’s lesson, of course!”
Otto furrowed his meaty brow, starting to get drunk again. “Lesson?”
“Of course! You really don’t think he shot at us just because you’re a poet, do you?”
“Well, you’re wrong. He was showing us how to beat the Death Angel.”
“Sure! You do it the same way you beat Joe’s bullets. You run. You run like the devil and you never look back.”
“Run?” Otto frowned. “You can’t run from your troubles.”
“Nonsense!” I railed. “They tell you that just so you’ll stay under the yoke when they crack the whip. You can run from anything and everything! I swear it!”
Otto squinted at me, then out the window. “Maybe you’re right,” he said. “Yeah, that’s right.” He slapped the dash. “That sly bastard! He wasn’t trying to kill me! He was trying to save my life!”
“Just so.” I pulled over between the twin on-ramps of I-15. “Now, I want you to look east and see what’s there: Denver, the Death Angel, smothering boredom and certain doom.”
Otto peered at the dim eastern horizon. “Boy, that’s not the way.”
“And now,” I said, pointing at the opposite horizon, burning with the glory of the setting sun, “look to the wild west, gaze down this long, wild road, examine if you will that far horizon made gold by that old jade Apollo even now slipping underground to get drunk with the Devil. Look at that golden horizon and recognize it as our home, because that’s where we’ll be living from now on.”
“It’s lovely I tell you! Lovely!”
“So where we going, old friend?”
“West, young man, west!”
I swung onto the chosen road and accelerated, letting the momentum for a long run build up behind us. I glanced at Otto’s grinning face, cocked toward the distant horizon, and sensed the Death Angel falling far, far behind.
—Frank Kelly Rich