(Go here for our previous chapter, or here to start the whole damn thing.)
Roger Miller’s “Dang Me” came on, and the Doc reached over and switched the car radio off.
“S’matter, Doc,” said Big Jake, “doncha like Roger Miller?”
“Not particularly,” said Doc Goldwasser.
Big Jake barreled his red 1969 Cadillac Coupe de Ville through the night along the worn desert road.
“Dang me!” he sang. “Dang me!” And then he took a good draw on a fat Monte Cristo with the ring still on it.
The top was down, the desert sky was bright with stars.
The Doc pressed in the dashboard lighter and took a pack of Old Golds out of his side jacket pocket.
Up ahead a couple of miles lay the dark, never-lived-in Atomic Town, or what remained of it after that H-bomb test back in ’59 followed by years of pillaging from locals unafraid of or ignorant of the perils of radiation.
“Oughta take a rope and hang me!” sang Jake.
The Doc stuck a cigarette into his mouth and waited for the lighter to pop.
“Hang me from the fuckin’ highest tree!” sang Big Jake, and he reached down into the footspace and came up with a pint can of Pabst Blue Ribbon. Holding the red leather-covered steering wheel with his elbows he pulled the pop-top and white beer-foam sprayed up and all over his fat gut. He pulled his arms away from the wheel and the Cadillac swerved out into the desert.
The Doc grabbed onto the dashboard.
“Jesus Christ, Jake --”
Jake let out a whoop and grabbed the wheel with his left hand while pouring beer into his wide-open upraised mouth with his right hand.
Wiping his mouth on his embroidered cowboy jacket sleeve he wheeled the bucking and rocking car back onto the road without taking his foot off the gas pedal.
“Don’t you worry, Doc. What we gonna run into out here, anyhow? Some li’l ol’ kangaroo rat maybe? Naw, even them kangaroo rats don’t live out chyere.”
Jake’s accent had gotten progressively thicker all night, just as it always did after the first beer (and this was his ninth or tenth plus a couple or three whiskeys), forget about the fact that his old man had sent him to Andover for prep school and Dartmouth for college.
The Cadillac’s headlights now faintly illuminated the white husks of the outlying houses of the Atomic Town.
“Hey, Doc, whatcha gonna do we find that flyin’ saucer?”
The Doc had his fingers on the lighter handle, and now it finally popped.
“I’m gonna ask the spacemen to take me with them,” he said.
He lit his cigarette and put the lighter back into its socket.
“Hey, Doc,” said Big Jake, his whole life he’d never been able to keep his mouth shut for thirty seconds straight and he wasn’t about to start now, “hey, Doc, ya ever just jump in the jeep and take a joyride out here, you know, just for the hell of it like?”
“No,” said the Doc, not bothering to say that he never went anywhere just for the hell of it.
“I do,” said Big Jake. “I like to drive out here sometimes. Look at the empty houses. Empty church. Empty town hall. Empty streets and town square. Quiet as hell. Empty fuckin’ desert all around ya. Kinda like a vision of the fuckin’ end of the world.” He took a long draw on his fat cigar and then let the smoke trail slowly out the side of his mouth and over his shoulder and off into the night. “The fuckin’ end of the world."
The Doc always avoided looking at Big Jake if he didn’t have to but now he did, for a second or two anyway.
“Didn’t know you were a poet, Jake.”
“Oh, I got my poetic side,” said Jake, and then he broke into song again. “Dang me! Dang me! Oughta take a rope and hang me! Hang me from the highest tree!”
The Doc reached over and turned the radio back on. Tom Jones came on, singing “The Green Green Grass of Home”. The Doc turned the dial and then it was “Sugar, Sugar” by the Archies. He switched the radio off and then he flinched and grunted in pain, just as if he’d been struck in the back of the head with a lead pipe.
“Fuck,” he said, putting his hand behind his right ear.
Jake turned and looked.
“Your head ailin’ ya, Doc?”
“Fuck,” said the Doc.
His face tight and pale as paper, the Doc tossed his cigarette out of the car, reached into his inside jacket pocket and took out the small brown medicine bottle. He struggled with the cap.
“Need your medicine, huh, Doc?”
“Shit,” said the Doc. “Fucking shit.”
Finally he got the cap off, he lifted the bottle to his mouth and took a good gulp. He held very still for a few seconds, his eyes closed. Then, his eyes still closed, he re-capped the bottle and lowered it to his side. His face was still tight, but now he opened his eyes. He began to breathe deeply and slowly. He put the bottle back into his jacket pocket.
“Better now, Doc?” asked Jake.
“It will be.”
“Got nothin’ but respect for you guys got wounded in the war, Doc. Nothin’ but respect. I was lucky, never got too near combat myself. Not that I wasn’t willin’, but -- you know the army, the army figgers out what it wants you to do, not you, and you damn well better do it. In my case it was be a supply sergeant. But lemme tell ya, I do say so myself, I was gonna be a supply sergeant? Well, sir, I was gonna be a damn good supply sergeant, yes sir. And again if I say so myself I don’t think there was another supply sergeant in the whole damn ETO who --”
“Can we -- just be quiet for a while?”
“Yeah, sure, Doc, sure. Sorry.”
Jake drove on, closer to the town, humming “Dang Me” to himself.
The Doc put his hand behind his ear again.
“You got that ringin’ in your ear now, Doc? That there what is it -- tetanitus? Titannicitus? Tintinnicitus?”
“Tinnitus,” said the Doc. “No. Not now.”
“Hurts though, huh?”
“No,” said the Doc. “The pain’s stopped now.”
Jake’s Cadillac now entered the dead and empty streets of the Atomic Town. The windows of the houses and buildings were black and gaping and rimmed with jagged shards of blackened glass, tendrils of ancient shredded curtains undulating in some of them like the hair of drowned old women. Not a single door stood in any doorway, all of them either destroyed by the blast or stolen by looters. A few tumbleweeds blew sadly along the streets but there was not a single specimen of living plant life, not a single desert weed.
Jake slowed the car down, the better to appreciate the sepulchral stillness and devastation of the town.
“Funny,” he said. “Build a whole town just so you can destroy it. Just like everything else in the universe when ya stop and think about it. The good Lord created it all and in due time He in his infinite wisdom will destroy it all, along with you, me, and ever-body else including all the little beasts and children, God love ‘em.”
He glanced over at the Doc, who still held his hand over his ear.
“You sure that ear ain’t still ailin’ ya, Doc?”
“Then why you holdin’ your hand on it?”
“Because I’m hearing voices.”
“Yeah. And music.”
“No shit. What these voices sayin’?”
“I -- I can’t make it out too well.”
“What they sound like?”
“They sound like --”
“Like a fucking nightmare.”
Suddenly Attie and Cleb Parsons came wheeling out of a side street on two old bicycles and into Jake’s headlights. Brother and sister both glowed a faint green in the bright light, as did their bikes.
Big Jake stopped the car.
“Now what them two kids doin’ way out here on their bikes?”
(Continued here. Soon to be a major motion picture from American International, produced and directed by Larry Winchester, starring Kirk Douglas as the Doc and Slim Pickens as Big Jake.)