Strange medicine on the desert ... a crisis of confidence
I am still vaguely haunted by our hitchhiker's remarks about how he'd "never rode in a convertible before." Here's this poor geek living in a world of convertibles zipping past him on the highways all the time, an he's never even ridden in one. It made me feel like King Farouk. I was tempted to have my attorney pull into the next airport and arrange some kind of simple, common-law contract whereby we could just give the car to this unfortunate bastard. Just say: "Here, sign this and the car's yours." Give him the keys and then use the credit card to zap off on a jet to some place like Miami and rent another huge fireapple-red convertible for a drug-addled, top-speed run across the water all the way out to the last stop in Key West ... and then trade the car off for a boat. Keep moving.
But this manic notion passed quickly. There was no point in getting this harmless kid locked up – and, besides, I had plans for this car. I was looking forward to flashing around Las Vegas in the bugger. Maybe do a bit of serious drag-racing on the Strip: Pull up to that big stoplight in front of the Flamingo and start screaming at the traffic:
"Alright, you chickenshit wimps! You pansies! When this goddamn light flips green, I'm gonna stomp down on this thing and blow every one of you gutless punks off the road!"
Right. Challenge the bastards on their own turf. Come screeching up to the crosswalk, bucking and skidding with a bottle of rum in one hand and jamming the horn to drown out the music ... glazed eyes insanely dilated behind tiny black, gold - rimmed greaser shades, screaming gibberish ... a genuinely dangerous drunk, reeking of ether and terminal psychosis. Revving the engine up to a terrible high-pitched chattering whine, waiting for the light to change ...
How often does a chance like that come around? To jangle the bastards right down to the core of their spleens. Old elephants limp off to the hills to die; old Americans go out to the highway and drive themselves to death with huge cars.
But our trip was different. It was a classic affirmation of everything right and true and decent in the national character It was a gross, physical salute to the fantastic possibilities of life in this country – but only for those with true grit. And we were chock full of that.
My attorney understood this concept, despite his racial handicap, but our hitchhiker was not an easy person to reach. He said he understood, but I could see in his eyes that he didn't. He was lying to me.
The car suddenly veered off the road and we came to a sliding halt in the gravel. I was hurled against the dashboard. My attorney was slumped over the wheel. "What's wrong?" I yelled. "We can't stop here. This is bat country!"
"My heart," he groaned. "Where's the medicine?"
"Oh," I said. "The medicine, yes, it's right here." I reached into the kit-bag for the amyls. The kid seemed petrified. "Don't worry," I said. "This man has a bad heart – Angina Pectoris. But we have the cure for it. Yes, here they are." I picked four amyls out of the tin box and handed two of them to my attorney. He immediately cracked one under his nose, and I did likewise.
He took a long snort and fell back on the seat, staring straight up at the sun. "Turn up the fucking music!" he screamed. "My heart feels like an alligator!
"Volume! Clarity! Bass! We must have bass!" He flailed his naked arms at the sky. "What's wrong with us? Are we goddamn old ladies?"
I turned both the radio and the tape machine up full bore. "You scurvy shyster bastard," I said. "Watch your language! You're talking to a doctor of journalism!"
He was laughing out of control. "What the fuck are we doing out here on this desert?" he shouted. "Somebody call the police! We need help!"
"Pay no attention to this swine," I said to the hitchhiker. "He can't handle the medicine. Actually, we're both doctors of journalism, and we're on our way to Las Vegas to cover the main story of our generation." And then I began laughing. ...
My attorney hunched around to face the hitchhiker. "The truth is," he said, "We're going to Vegas to croak a scag baron named Savage Henry. I've known him for years, but he ripped us off – and you know what that means, right?"
I wanted to shut him off, but we were both helpless with laughter. What the fuck were we doing out here on this desert, when we both had bad hearts?
"Savage Henry has cashed his check!" My attorney snarled at the kid in the back seat. "We're going to rip his lungs out!"
"And eat them!" I blurted. "That bastard won't get away with this! What's going on in this country when a scum-sucker like that can get away with sandbagging a doctor of journalism?"
Nobody answered. My attorney was cracking another amyl and the kid was climbing out of the back seat, scrambling down the trunk lid. "Thanks for the ride," he yelled. "Thanks a lot. I like you guys. Don't worry about me." His feet hit the asphalt and he started running back towards Baker. Out in the middle of the desert, not a tree in sight.
"Wait a minute," I yelled. "Come back and get a beer." But apparently he couldn't hear me. The music was very loud, and he was moving away from us at good speed.
* * *
"Good Riddance," said my attorney. "We had a real freak on our hands. That boy made me nervous. Did you see his eyes?" He was still laughing. "Jesus," he said. "This is good medicine!"
I opened the door and reeled around to the driver's side. "Move over," I said. "I'll drive. We have to get out of California before that kid finds a cop."
"Shit, that'll be hours." said my attorney. "He's a hundred miles from anywhere."
"So are we," I said.
"Let's turn around and drive back to the Polo Lounge," he said. "They'll never look for us there."
I ignored him. "Open the tequila," I yelled as the windscream took over again; I stomped on the accelerator as we hurtled back onto the highway. Moments later he leaned over with a map. "There's a place up ahead called Mescal Springs," he said. "As your attorney, I advise you to stop and take a swim."
I shook my head. "It's absolutely imperative that we get to the Mint Hotel before the deadline for press registration," I said. "Otherwise, we might have to pay for our suite."
He nodded. "But let's forget that bullshit about the American Dream," he said. "The important thing is the Great Samoan Dream." He was rummaging around in the kit-bag. "I think it's about time to chew up a blotter," he said. "That cheap mescaline wore off a long time ago, and I don't know if I can stand the smell of that goddamn ether any longer."
"I like it," I said. "We should soak a towel with the stuff and then put it down on the floorboard by the accelerator, so the fumes will rise up in my face all the way to Las Vegas."
He was turning the tape cassette over. The radio was screaming: "Power to the People – Right On!" John Lennon's political song, ten years too late. "That poor fool should have stayed where he was," said my attorney. "Punks like that just get in the way when they try to be serious."
"Speaking of serious," I said. "I think it's about time to get into the ether and the cocaine."
"Forget ether," he said. "Let's save it for soaking down the rug in the suite. But here's this. Your half of the sunshine blotter. Just chew it up like baseball gum."
I took the blotter and ate it. My attorney was now fumbling with the salt shaker containing the cocaine. Opening it. Spilling it. Then screaming and grabbing at the air, as our fine white dust blew up and out across the desert highway. A very expensive little twister rising up from the Great Red Shark. "Oh, jesus!" he moaned. "Did you see what God just did to us?"
"God didn't do that!" I shouted. "You did it. You're a fucking narcotics agent! I was on to your stinking act from the start, you pig!"
"You better be careful," he said. And suddenly he was waving a fat black .357 magnum at me. One of those snubnosed Colt Pythons with the beveled cylinder. "Plenty of vultures out here," he said. "They'll pick your bones clean before morning."
"You whore," I said. "When we get to Las Vegas I'll have you chopped into hamburger. What do you think the Drug Bund will do when I show up with a Samoan narcotics agent?"
"They'll kill us both," he said. "Savage Henry knows who I am. Shit, I'm your attorney." He burst into wild laughter. "You're full of acid, you fool. It'll be a goddamn miracle if we can get to the hotel and check in before you turn into a wild animal. Are you ready for that? Checking into a Vegas hotel under a phony name with intent to commit capital fraud and a head full of acid?" He was laughing again, then he jammed his nose down toward the salt shaker, aiming the thin green roll of a $20 bill straight into what was left of the powder.
"How long do we have?" I said.
"Maybe 30 more minutes," he replied. "As your attorney I advise you to drive at top speed."
Las Vegas was just up ahead. I could see the strip/hotel skyline looming through the blue desert ground-haze: The Sahara, the landmark, the Americana and the ominous Thunderbird – a cluster of grey rectangles in the distance, rising out of the cactus.
Thirty minutes. It was going to be very close. The objective was the big tower of the Mint Hotel, downtown – and if we didn't get there before we lost all control, there was also the Nevada State prison upstate in Carson City. I had been there once, but only for a talk with the prisoners – and I didn't want to go back, for any reason at all. So there was really no choice: We would have to run the gauntlet, and acid be damned. Go through all the official gibberish, get the car into the hotel garage, work out on the desk clerk, deal with the bellboy, sign in for the press passes – all of it bogus, totally illegal, a fraud on its face, but of course it would have to be done.
"Kill the Body and the Head will Die"
This line appears in my notebook, for some reason. Perhaps some connection with Joe Frazier. Is he still alive? Still able to talk? I watched that fight in Seattle – horribly twisted about four seats down the aisle from the Governor. A very painful experience in every way, a proper end to the Sixties: Tim Leary a prisoner of Eldridge Cleaver in Algeria, Bob Dylan clipping coupons in Greenwich Village, both Kennedys murdered by mutants, Owsley folding napkins on Terminal Island, and finally Cassius/Ali belted incredibly off his pedestal by a human hamburger, a man on the verge of death. Joe Frazier, like Nixon, had finally prevailed for reasons that people like me refused to understand – at least not out loud.
... But that was some other era, burned out and long gone from the brutish realities of this foul year of Our Lord, Nineteen Hundred and Seventy One. A lot of things had changed in those years. And now I was in Las Vegas as the motor sports editor of this fine slick magazine that had sent me out here in the Great Red Shark for some reason that nobody claimed to understand. "Just check it out," they said, "and we'll take it from there. ..."
Indeed. Check it out. But when we finally arrived at the Mint Hotel my attorney was unable to cope artfully with the registration procedure. We were forced to stand in line with all the others – which proved to be extremely difficult under the circumstances. I kept telling myself: "Be quiet, be calm, say nothing ... speak only when spoken to: name, rank and press affiliation, nothing else, ignore this terrible drug, pretend it's not happening. ..."
There is no way to explain the terror I felt when I finally lunged up to the clerk and began babbling. All my well-rehearsed lines fell apart under that woman's stoney glare. "Hi there," I said. "My name is ... ah, Raoul Duke ... yes, on the list, that's for sure. Free lunch, final wisdom, total coverage. ... why not? I have my attorney with me and I realize of course that his name is not on my list, but we must have that suite, yes, this man is actually my driver. We brought this red shark all the way from the Strip and now it's time for the desert, right? Yes. Just check the list and you'll see. Don't worry. What's the score, here? What's next?"
The woman never blinked. "Your room's not ready yet," she said. "But there's somebody looking for you."
"No!" I shouted. "Why? We haven't done anything yet!" My legs felt rubbery. I gripped the desk and sagged toward her as she held out the envelope, but I refused to accept it. The woman's face was changing: swelling, pulsing ... horrible green jowls and fangs jutting out, the face of a Moray Eel! Deadly poison! I lunged backwards into my attorney, who gripped my arm as he reached out to take the note. "I'll handle this," he said to the Moray woman. "This man has a bad heart, but I have plenty of medicine. My name is Doctor Gonzo. Prepare our suite at once. We'll be in the bar."
The woman shrugged as he led me away. In a town full of bedrock crazies, nobody even notices an acid freak. We struggled through the crowded lobby and found two stools at the bar. My attorney ordered two cuba libres with beer and mescal on the side, then he opened the envelope. "Who's Lacerda?" he asked. "He's waiting for us in a room on the 12th floor."
I couldn't remember. Lacerda? The name rang a bell, but I couldn't concentrate. Terrible things were happening all around us. Right next to me a huge reptile was gnawing on a woman's neck, the carpet was a blood-soaked sponge – impossible to walk on it, no footing at all. "Order some golf shoes," I whispered. "Otherwise, we'll never get out of this place alive. You notice these lizards don't have any trouble moving around in this muck – that's because they have claws on their feet."
"Lizards?" he said. "If you think we're in trouble now, wait till you see what's happening in the elevators." He took off his Brazilian sunglasses and I could see he'd been crying. "I just went upstairs to see this man Lacerda," he said. "I told him we knew what he was up to. He says he's a photographer, but when I mentioned Savage Henry – well, that did it; he freaked. I could see it in his eyes. He knows we're onto him."
"Does he understand we have magnums?" I said.
"No. But I told him we had a Vincent Black Shadow. That scared the piss out of him."
"Good," I said. "But what about our room? And the golf shoes? We're right in the middle of a fucking reptile zoo! And somebody's giving booze to these goddamn things! It won't be long before they tear us to shreds. Jesus, look at the floor! Have you ever seen so much blood? How many have they killed already?" I pointed across the room to a group that seemed to be staring at us. "Holy shit, look at that bunch over there! They've spotted us!"
"That's the press table," he said. "That's where you have to sign in for our credentials. Shit, let's get it over with. You handle that, and I'll get the room."
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