Cop lights crackling at a sobriety checkpoint was the last thing Phil expected. It seemed like he was just in Susanville, amazed at how much it had grown, listening to no tunes through town. He hadn't even talked to himself very much for company since getting ditched by the hitchhiker, Haka. He knew what the problem there was. Too much time by himself storing up things to say, and with an outsider’s insight due to cutting himself off from the tube. Even to people who agreed with him he was difficult, so trained had he become in the fight to enlightenment. Anyway, he was glad he hadn't shared his writing. But now what did it all come to? No job, no woman, and cop lights flashing in the desert.
There was another car in front. A very nice and particularly expensive-looking limo. The cop was leaning down, speaking to the people inside behind the driver, and he, the cop, was also registering approving appraisal of the fine rich car in front, the expensive limousine. Then they all seemed to Phil to be making their goodbyes, the driver's window went up, and the cop was waving, actually giving a little salute goodbye, smiling in a uniform so tight he could have stepped out of “CHiPs.” The people in the wonderful limo tore off, swerving a bit, Phil noticed, but when the cop saw Phil in his peeling old Pinto, all the smiling fell away.
Now he showed a totally opposite attitude to the affection displayed for the drunken speeders in the limo, and Phil saw in the cop's face the look that said, “I would never want that car.” Those were people with money for a good lawyer. People with money for connections. Phil had enough money to be out driving in the desert. Maybe he could pay some fines.
Suddenly, he remembered. He wasn't carrying any insurance.
“Good afternoon sir, be advised we are currently conducting a sobriety checkpoint—”
Phil didn't see any we.
“—and anything you say can and will be used against you. License and registration, please, sir.”
Phil’s going for his wallet sent the cop’s hand to his gun. “Nice!...annnd easy,” the officer said. The holster strapped on did not go unbuttoned. But it was close.
Leaning toward the glove compartment, Phil hoped, obstructed from the cops view the conspicuous lack of proof of insurance.
“I don't understand why I have to show these things,” he said, handing over his driver's license and freshly signed-over pink slip.
“Sounds like you're…trying to resist.”
“I gave you what you asked for. I only said I didn't understand why.”
“That's it. Keep digging.”
Immediately Phil ceased talking.
The wind pushed at the cops hat, and he seemed to want to put a hand up and hold it on, even though he wore a chin strap. He never raised that hand, though. He wouldn’t give Phil the satisfaction. Tumbleweeds rolled. All around the wide desert landscape through which the highway shot was to be seen no one. The cop peeled a long strip of old paint from the car and said in a flat, raised voice that he ought to cite Phil for littering. He dismissed the strip of paint to the wind. It broke off from where the car had been seriously keyed, a big ragged line going all the way around. “Okay, I'm going to have to ask you to step out of the car now, sir,” said the cop, backing up with a hand over the holster.
“Am I being arrested?” Phil almost asked this as he got out, but didn't want to give the cop any ideas. He had to be careful, too, of betraying the sore stiffness of remaining seated driving for hours, and control any sort of sound, wincing expression, or jerky motion that might serve to frighten, anger, or confuse. This sufficed for the cop, whose name, Phil saw by the tag on his shirt, was Officer Lash, to have Phil walk a straight line front and back, touch his nose with his eyes closed, and recite the alphabet backwards before asking Phil (who passed each test successfully) to wait in the car while he chatted near his cruiser, lights still flashing, speaking into a device on his shoulder quite amiably. Then Officer Lash strode back over to Phil, smile dropping lower every step, and said, “What's in the box in the back?”
“A bunch of videos. Why?”
“A bunch of videos? Why don't you show me?”
Sensing a weakness, Officer Lash pressed on. “Sir, do you authorize permission to search your vehicle?”
Phil thought about that. Certainly he didn't want Officer Lash to find the lack of insurance proof. And he had been given the option. So, he said no.
“Well, you did give me the option.”
“Do you have something to hide?”
“No. But you did give me the option.”
“Alright then. Okay. I guess I'll just have to call in Officer Sniffy.”
“Officer Sniffy? Is there actually an Officer Sniffy? You're joking, right?”
“Sir, Officer Sniffy is the name we give our K-9 unit.”
“So you can actually do this to people? I'm just driving down the road, and now all of a sudden you can go through all my things, and interrogate me, and threaten me with dogs, and take up my time when I did nothing but drive safely down the road?”
The look on Officer Lash’s face said, “Oh? Why did you feel the need to drive so safely, huh?” and the words might have come out of his mouth as well, save for what was for Phil an unusually fortuitous circumstance: a car came tearing past. At an exceptionally high rate of speed. It was a Mustang. The red Mustang. Suddenly everything the cop was doing with Phil screech to a dead halt. He raced over to his cruiser, churned up a cloud of dust and roared off, sirens howling.
Phil rolled the window up and waited while the dust passed. But the cop didn't come back. After a few minutes, Phil took off, half-expecting Officer Lash to suddenly appear racing towards him, bullets blazing, thinking he was in a high-speed pursuit shootout. A slight grade precluded Phil's ability to see far enough down the highway to spot cop and quarry.
It was a good ten miles before Phil felt ready to give himself a pep talk. When he was ready to start explaining to himself about the pitfalls of leaving the comfort zone, he topped a rise right out of a Road Runner cartoon and saw, way off to the right, far from the line of the highway, the red Mustang, upside-down, surrounded by cop cars. A semi heading past went at the perfect speed for Phil to stay on the left-hand side, keeping the truck between himself and the cops beyond.
Then in the distance he could see it. The tower rising dimly beyond. At thirty-three hundred feet tall, the tower stood in the background visibly now even where the big green road sign said that Las Vegas was seventy-seven miles away.
All the faces stared at the flipped-up phone. Everybody was checking out a video Jordan had edited together of highlights from Drunkfights. Royal hadn't shown up yet with the shoe-in. Pooro lightly shadowboxed and trotted about now, keeping loose, warm, limber. His black-and-white soul silently flickered Douglas Fairbanks in Zorro gear, masked face thrown back laughing. He studied the faces staring at the tiny screen. Who were they to be his audience? Who were they to judge? Why should he please them? What horror could match that sea of faces watching? Primitive beings, defecating hypocrites, beings with bad deeds made briefly pleased, only to go back to the same behaviors, sorely mistreating, repeating mistakes. In that sea of faces there was no awareness of a culmination. Simply a passing spasm, soon to be forgotten. But his was not the audience experience.
The show got underway in the shadow of the tower on the outskirts of the city when Royal showed up with Spooly, the HGH case shoe-in, who everybody knew was twenty-two. Twenty-two years younger than Pooro. Pooro was this guy’s age the year he left home.
Jordan touted the tale of the tape, with the gleam of a boy about to see the guy who stole the holiday presents get his head chopped off.
“In this corner we have, at twenty-two years of age, standing six feet and one inch tall, weighing in at two hundred and sixty-five pounds, Spooly!”
“Gig idth fuggin’ ath!” Sampedro, staggering off to the side, slobbered through his missing teeth. “Gig idth fuggin’ ath!”
“And in this corner, ah yes. Let's see now, oh that's right, forty-four fucking years old. Shit! And about, what are you? Five foot nine? Five foot ten? Weighing in at two hundred-fifteen, next to my man's two sixty-five...Pooro! Can't wait to see what happens here. Sorry though, looks like bye-bye, Pooro. Don't you think? Pooro, I said don't you think?”
“Gig idth fuggin’ ath!”
The wind was picking up. High overhead, the clouds had darkened.
It was experience versus inexperience, the real fighting knowledge of a participant in it versus the theoretical fighting knowledge of the spectator of it. Pooro's proven sustainable freak-strength ferocity, stacked against the unknown quantity of Spooly, might have given Jordan and Royal pause had their judgment not been clouded.
Spooly had aspirations for the big time. He said he wanted to cut his teeth.
“Gig idth fuggin’ ath!”
Then came the little phone held up, held open, the tiny eye, lidless, recording all on the minuscule screen. The thrill of watching a fellow human being being beaten kicked in.
Pooro kept his laughing Fairbanks soul in frame under gathering Cimmerian clouds and the powers of the universe came shuffling through him in ecstatic truth, the money shot, in the Frazetta moment, as dry lightning flashed in the sky like the neurons firing in his mind.
From the ground up, he knew: If everybody fought their own battles, there would be no wars.
And: Sometimes your best friends are the dead and the unborn.
And: Conformity is thought inbred.
And: Some never do leave school, the class just extends.
A sea of faces stared at the tiny screen. Off-camera the shit-talk sounded tinny and shrill. They saw Pooro, with his black mask painted on, as always, leap across toward Spooly, evade a swipe, and right away start nailing shots to Spooly’s solar plexus, darting in, slipping away three times in three seconds, merciless on the breadbox. Then suddenly he shifted his stance and shot the stunned Spooly with a left cross to the neck. Spooly struck out blindly and staggered Pooro backward—here the camera shook too much to see exactly what was going on, then refocused on Pooro and Spooly in a clinch. After a bit of that, Pooro’s hand could be seen reaching for Spooly’s face. Suddenly Spooly started screaming. And screaming. Jordan got a close-up of Pooro’s left thumb in Spooly’s right eye. Deep into the socket. He shoved his thumb in a few more times, apparently for good measure, then pulled it out trailing a red mess of pulp. Spooly stood crouched over, screaming. Some unintelligible speaking came off-camera. Then Pooro flew back into frame, or rather his right foot, the heel of which exploded into Spooly’s face.
Spooly sat off to the side now with a t-shirt from Royal's truck held at his bleeding eye-hole. Several of his front teeth were missing. Sampedro liked that. Pooro stood apart from the rest, wiping down his face, hands and arms with a wet rag stained with blood, staring idly at the tower . . .