Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Hillbilly Bowling
By Karl Koweski

On top of Brindlee Mountain there was little else to do.  We parked our trucks near the airline at Conoco Gas Station, Friday night, and waited for something to happen.  I leaned against the side of Codeye’s ‘78 Ford, not so much because we were friends (I tolerated him) but because he brought a pint of Wild Turkey lifted from his daddy’s stash.

A sip of Wild Turkey practically induced seizures.  Hell, the gasoline smell of it bringing the pint to my lips gave me the shakes.  It amused the shit out of Codeye, Dookie and Gump.

“Gimme a hit a that, Shagadelic,” Gump said.  He flexed his muscles grabbing the pint from me.  He flexed his muscles taking a hit off the bottle.  He flexed his muscles trying to keep from reacting the same way I did.  He flexed his muscles just standing there waiting for something to happen.

The bottle made its rounds.  Cars passed by on route 231, going wherever people go.  Some cars stopped at the gas station.  People pumped gas; they bought bottles of soda, packs of off brand cigarettes.  We nodded to those we recognized which were most of them.  Dookie grumbled about having nothing to do,though tonight was no different from any other night.  Once summer scorched into Alabama there were keg parties to be found, fields usually, just outside of town.  For now, though, it was parking lots and furtive sips of stolen hooch.

There were no females around.  Females our age tended to flock to the Burger King parking lot and its conglomeration of rich boys driving Mustangs and BMWs. The girls seemed to prefer these rides over my old Dodge with the cracked windshield, busted shocks and rusted floorboards.

Still, I wore my good pair of pants; not the Tommy Hilfiger britches the Burger King kids were partial to, but not Wal-Mart brand, either.  My mom got the jeans on sale at the Mall, and they actually fit well in the waist and ass.  I concealed the pimples on my forehead with a good Auburn cap.  Even Crimson Tide fans rather see War Eagle than cystic acne.

We were all dressed alike to a certain extent.  Gump wore clean overalls. Dookie wore his good Dale Earnhardt Jr. T-shirt and Codeye wore camouflage britches and a piss yellow gimme shirt from some oil change place.

“What about it, fellas?”  This being Adam’s greeting.  He pulled up next to our encampment driving a sharp 2002 Chevy Silverado, the 20 inch rims shining like quicksilver.

We nodded and mumbled our own trademark salutations.  I mentioned the possibility of another wasted night and the lack of money or inclination to change this.

Adam motioned toward the bed of his Chevy.  “Take a look back there, fellas.”

We approached cautiously, strangling our excitement with a healthy dose of Brindlee Mountain cynicism.  It could have been anything back there.  A keg of Natural Ice.  A case of Natural Lite.  Or it may have just as easily have been a dead rattlesnake or a pile of shovels.

It was two steel wheels nursing flaccid rubber.  They looked as though they might have come off a tractor trailer.

Yeah, another typical night.

Dookie grinned like a madman.  “Ah, shit, you thinking what I’m thinking?”

“Hell, yeah,” Gump flexed.

"Hillbilly bowling,” Codeye nodded.

Hillbilly bowling?  Shit, even Codeye knew the score.  Codeye having knowledgeI was not privy to did not bode well.

Gump hopped in the back of the truck and lowered the first tire down to Dookie. He pigeon-toed the tire to the air pump.  The next one came at me, Codeye having conveniently followed Dookie to the pump.  I allowed the tire to fall to the ground rather than risk messing up my good pants.

“Grab the dag gum thing.”

I couldn’t quite get the words out in time.  Gump dropped down and muscled me aside.  He grabbed the tire one-handed and strolled to the pump where Dookie and Codeye were airing up the first tire.

I waited for Adam to turn off his truck.  I’d decided not to announce my ignorance by asking the boys to explain hillbilly bowling.  I’d yet to live down the time I inquired after “the man in the boat” the boys kept referring to in one of our many, many, many discussions centered on the ladies.

Adam was safe.  He wasn’t really one of us, but he wasn’t exactly one of them, either.  He moved comfortably in most circles knowing enough cliches to speak the language of every clique in school.  I figured on asking him to explain this hillbilly bowling thing but the moment he was out of his truck, he darted right for Gump who had taken control of the air hose.

“You need to fill that tire slap up.”

“I know, Adam.”

“Bout a hundred pounds of pressure.”

“I know.”

“Til that tire feels hard as a rock and’s fixing to pop.”

Once the tire received the required air pressure, Gump could scarcely lift it up.  I had to help him at Adam’s insistence.

“Put it in the bed of your Dodge, Shagalicious.”

“Mine? Why mine?”

“You got more room.  Another thing, you got a virgin truck.  Those shitkickers know my truck as well as the ass end of their daughters.  They hear me coming six miles away; they’ll be waiting on their porches with their best deerrifles.”

"Where are we going?”

“Ain’t you never played hillbilly bowling?”  To say that Dookie grinned wouldbe to say that Dookie breathed.  His shit eating grin above all else earned him the nickname.

“No, I’ve never played.”

“I thought you was with us that time Gump knocked that trailer off its foundation?”

I shook my head.

“Was probably Studs with us,” Codeye said. “You don’t know what you’re missing, Shagaroni.”

“Well, he’s fixing to find out,” Adam said, hurrying us along.

The boys loaded the other tire.  Adam slid into the cab with me.  Gump, Codeye and Dookie reclined in the back among the tires.  They reclined as well as they could while still able to tip the Wild Turkey without spilling the precious juice.

“You ever been to Joppa?”  Adam asked.

I lived in Joppa.  Rather than admit this, I simply nodded.

“Know where Hogjaw Road is?”

Hogjaw Road represented the southern fried version of skid row, a sort of fairytale land where every negative southern cliche resided.  I knew this having lived there for two tour of duties when my Mom and Dad were having problems of the drug type. Each time I escaped, I considered myself fortunate not to have been seriously dogbit or spiraled away by the occasional passing tornado.

I claimed I didn’t know.  After giving me directions, Adam explained the ins and outs of hillbilly bowling.  “Scoring’s pretty much a judgement call. Usually you knock a car off its blocks or kick off someone’s electricity -– it’s a strike.  Cause a lot of racket or displace a pack of hounds, you get a spare. Gump swears up and down he knocked a trailer off its foundation, but he’s full of shit.  I did knock a porch off a trailer one time.  Probably crushed ten dogs.  Screwed up their Hibatchi.”

I drove slowly, keeping a careful eye for cops who monitored the area for crystal meth.

“Saw a water head, one time,” Adam continued. “The wheel bounced off the trailer hitch, shook the whole goddam place.  Made the lights flicker, everything.  Guy comes out and sees the wheel lying there.  So he picks it up and chucks it on top of the roof with all the other tires up there; keep the roof from blowing away in a strong wind.”

“Tire’s kinda heavy to be chucking anywhere?”

“Ah, it wasn’t no eighteen wheeler tire.  Think it was off an old Buick.  Guy was pretty big, too, and it took some doing.”

Hogjaw Road jagged off Route 67 into a sort of valley which could more accurately be described as a depression.  Heavy rains usually put the area under a foot of water.  Living here, you just learn to accept it.  Fifty feet down before Hogjaw Road descends the hill, a gravel road branched off and followed a ridge toward eight chicken houses that helped lend Joppa that distinctive smell of chickenshit mingled with Skoal and diesel fuel.  Both times I lived there, I never got use to that stench.

“Drive all the way down to the chicken houses and turn around, facing thestreet.  Leave the keys in the ignition.  We usually have to skin out quick.”

I did as I was told.  I scarcely had the Dodge in park before Gump and Dookie began unloading the tires.  Though high with excitement and Wild Turkey, they kept the chatter at a minimum, communicating with toothy grins and constant headnodding.

The southern fried skid row sprawled below us.  From here it appeared as though a tornado had recently stomped through, though I knew it’d been almost a year and a half since the last one paid a visit.  There were no street lights here, the illumination provided by the sporadic porch light or bug zapper.  Moving shadows represented wandering mongrel dogs.  The trailers were mostly bought repossessed for a fraction of costs and looked it. I could see my aunt’s trailer, a ‘94 model with twenty five years left on the mortgage far outside tire range, from this vantage.

“Give one of them to Shagtastic,” Adam ordered, keeping his voice hushed.

Gump kept an iron grip on his tire.  Dookie begrudgingly stepped aside from the other tire.  I took his place, running a finger along the balding rubber, hard as a concrete block.

“Ok, on the count of three,” Adam said.  “One... two... three.”

Gump took a running start, his face smeared with rage.  He launched the tire down the embankment with all his strength.  I eased my tire to the embankment and let gravity take over.  I didn’t aim.  I didn’t not aim.  I just let it go.

Gump’s tire spun out of control almost from the start.  Bounding more than rolling, it skipped sideways, fell on the rim and slid another ten feet, stopping dead at the base of the ridge.

“Son of a bitch!” Gump hollered.

My tire gained momentum.  And I watched it roll with sickened fascination.  I wanted to turn my back, but I had to see the damage.  I couldn’t walk away without knowing what I’d done.

“Holy shit, that’s a good one,” Adam said.

Codeye and Dookie were already hopping in the back of the truck.  My eyes never left the tire.

It gained speed on the tired, wilted grass.  The impact reminded me of the days spent crushing cans with my father, trying to gather enough smashed aluminum to afford Dad a fifth of whiskey and a dollar store soldier toy for me.  A sledgehammer bashing a tall boy of Milwaukee’s Best.  The lights flickered.  The whole place shook as though it’d been hit by a rocket.

Adam and Gump broke for the Dodge.  I stood there.  The sudden silence following the explosive noise all consuming.  Then the sound came to me, the keening wail of an infant.  It lasted all of a second before being swallowed by the united braying of every mutt within a ten mile radius.

The screen door of the trailer banged open and the silhouette of a man appeared in the doorway.

“I’m calling the fucking cops,” the man screamed.  “I’m sick of this shit.”

Go ahead, I thought.  I could walk back to the gas station before dispatch decided to send an officer here.  Unless he mentioned he had a nice batch of meth cooking.

“The hell you doing, Shagamania?”

Adam pulled the truck alongside me.  Gump sat in the passenger seat.  Joy and disappointment wrestled for control over Gump’s fruitbat facial features. Dookie and Codeye sat in the bed of the truck.  They both wore grins the size of the truck’s grill.  I stomped Dookie’s ankle as hard as I could as I scrambled over.  He opened his mouth to holler but thought better of it.

The words Dookie spoke on the way back to the Conoco were swallowed by the wind.  I wasn’t listening, anyway.  I laid on the rubber bed liner.  I stared at the stars knowing it was always the rich and the elite who got to name them.

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