When In Rome
With stupidity the gods themselves struggle in vain. —Friedrich Schiller
Why adventures like this one kept coming the way of the Gang of Four (and never the same four) is a mystery. But there we were one sticky summer night in the vehicle of yours truly, looking for something to do besides just the dope and alcohol. We were constantly in the local bowling alley, but no one ever bothered to bowl. No thrills that way. It was just a warm place to connect for drugs and get out of the freeze. The manager would kick us out over and over but we’d always come back to outrage him some more with our hair and weed-reek. We put a lot of quarters in the damn foosball ‘n pinball machines anyway so there. There was a big hill northward from town twenty-thirty miles out. It was just a hill, nothing more. But it was the “highest point in the county.” This county had nothing to see but that was the bill for the night. Sparkling conversation on the ride up: Rocky: I never been here. NG: Uh huh. Rocky: Where is it? Did we miss it? Mickey: Up here a ways. You stoned enough yet Nik? 84 WHEN IN ROME Banny: Beer? (cracks it open and pushes it over the back seat) NG: I never get stoned. Just expanded. Mickey: My ass. Expand this (passing a joint up). What’s your sister doing lately? Rocky: What sister? NG: (over my shoulder) She’s dating your little brother, remember? Rocky: How old? NG: Who? His brother? Rocky: Your sister…I thought. NG: Not old enough for you man, forget it. And too Catholic. Mickey: Never. Banny: Good weed. Sell me some. Mickey: Sure, couple joints maybe. Take a left up here. Banny: Couple joints?! After all the weed I turned you onto? Sheeeit. Mickey: (big laughs, hacking) …and on and on. Sure enough, the headlights lit up the sign “Highest point in X County.” I lock ‘em up and take a hard left, the road rising fast up around the hill. After a few hundred feet we level out on a gravel parking lot, the clouds bouncing the light from nearby towns and giving the whole place a murky moonlit look. There were the dim outlines of a couple other cars backed to the edges of the lot and I shied off of these and pulled the Chevy to the far side nose in and killed it. In a minute or two, one of the other two cars pulled out and disappeared over the edge leaving just one car besides us, which was backed in and pointed directly at us. We sat in the car, four dark shadows staring out the through the windshield at the sea of dark green with faraway town lights blinking through. Sure enough, it had 85 TOUGH LUCK IDIOT to be the highest point in the county which made me depressed to know how much there wasn’t to see from here. A joint started going around along with cigarettes, little orange fireflies again through the smoky bubble of a car, all windows tight. Even in the most remote places life never fails with surprises. We hadn’t been there ten minutes, just settling in to get really cross-eyed, when what to my buzzing ears did hear but a tap on the window right next to my head. Everyone froze. A cop? Banny was shotgun and I saw his dark face and mane turn slowly toward my window, cuffing the joint. Hell with it. I jerked my head around, squinting to see what bad surprise we were in for now. The surprise turned out to be a shrimpy little dude in a light colored sweater and Elton John haircut, grinning at me. This made no sense and it took me a good ten seconds to try to guess what he could possibly want, knocking on a blacked out car with four freaks who couldn’t be doing anything else but what it looked like. Mickey saw him through the back window and cackled a little. “What the f’cking hell does he want!” “Christ…” Banny whispered out. I found my arm and jerked the window down an inch or two. “Yeah? What’s up?” I rasped, voicebox all glued up with pot and cigarette smoke, half drunk and starting to slur. “Hey!” Elton chirped out with a fixed grin on his face, adding to the confusion. “Just wanted to see if you guys wanted to party…I have some weed…just want to, y’know, party!” The sands of time have buried the memory of his stupid babble by now, but this was the drift. No one could believe this, but the best was yet to come. “Sure! You got anything?” Mickey pipes up from the back, getting his stride. I knew the guy, he was armed and ready for any sort of prank. I wasn’t sure about the Banny/Rocky team. 86 WHEN IN ROME We slunk out of the car, giving the parking lot a good scan to make sure we weren’t being set up. But there was only Elton. We all stood by the car while he chattered on. Mickey snaps out “So where’s the weed?” winking at us. Elton pulls out a joint, lights it, drags, passes it. “So, what you all doing up here?” he says, plainly not a good observer. “Uh, we came up to look for earthworms. To fish with. You?”, Rocky says deadpan, tipping a beer and eyeing the guy up and down. Elton grins, not getting it. “Well I’m waiting for someone to come buy this heroin I have, got a few ounces…” he says right out loud. Or was it sell heroin? But I didn’t hear that. I didn’t just hear a total stranger, in the middle of nowhere at midnight with four drugged ‘n drunked out dudes he’d never even seen before, three of them with hair you could tow a boat with, say he was waiting here all alone in this parking lot to sell heroin. Well we weren’t nowhere exactly, it was the highest hill in the county. No one else could believe it either. (And neither, I imagine, can the reader, but with hand on my heart I stand by the saying that you cannot make this stuff up). We all looked at the ground, then at each other in the sticky murky silence, weed smoke curling up. But Mickey’s wheels were already turning. “No shit!” he says. “How much you got?” “A few ounces! It’s good…” Elton chirps out again, or similar drivel. “Damn! We might want some, if you have enough,” Mickey says, a real b.s. artist. He looks around at us and gives a slight head jerk towards the car. “Uh, we’ll be right back…just got to decide if we can do it…” he says over his shoulder to Elton as we all drift to the back of the car. “That guy’s got to have a lot of dough” Mickey whispers. “I think we can get some of it…,” he says, looking around. Banny is thinking, but opaque. 87 TOUGH LUCK IDIOT Rocky likewise. This was all new to me. The idea of taking some guy down for his money was something I’d never even heard of in our little corn-town. “You going to do it?” Banny says under his breath, with a sneer at Mickey, who grins back evilly. “Hell yes…just get around him in a circle. I’ll do it. C’mon,” and he starts moving back to Elton who hadn’t moved, now with a shadow of unease on his face in the half-dark. Banny/Rocky and I all paused. Not a one of us was a mugger or had anything really against this guy, but the idea of teaching a complete fool a cheap lesson before he got killed had some vague appeal. We all shrugged to each other and followed Mickey over, none of us taking the whole thing seriously. Not exactly surrounding the guy, we sort of blocked him in on the sides, one directly in front of him. I decided it would be my job to keep Mickey from really hurting the guy if he started to get too loose. He had a way of getting under my skin with his nonstop reckless talk and I wasn’t going to let him get away with too much. Mickey started to make small talk, Elton babbling some more. Without warning Mickey yells at him “Let’s have the money! Now!” Nobody moved. “Wallet! Out with it!” barked Mickey. Elton looks around like a rat in a corner, all goes silent for a moment then out of nowhere he launches a flurry of rabbit punches into Mickey’s ribs, which was ridiculous. Slap slap slap. Mickey, who enjoyed fighting, fed up with the rabbit punches backed up a few inches then grabs Elton around the neck and flings him to the ground hard. “You want more?” Mickey shouts, holding him. A hoarse mumble from Elton, and Mickey gets him back on his feet. “The wallet, man…” Mickey says, bored. The guy pulls out his wallet, shaking so bad he almost drops it. Sure enough, he had a hefty stack of bills in there. But nobody really wanted 88 WHEN IN ROME any, it was too pathetic. He shakes a bill towards Mickey, who takes it, grabs one more, and leaves Elton with his wad shy two bills. “Cool…we gotta go!” Mickey says to him, giving him a “just kidding, yes?” grin. He sprints to the car, giving Elton a quick look over his shoulder, who likewise is making for his car fast and now we all have the jitters but not bad. We pile in, memories of our escape from the Kevin/trailer affair flicking through my head. “Hit it! Fast! Outta here!” Banny spits out, grinning and scanning the parking lot. I throw the thing in reverse, punching it, the car swinging sideways, cranking the wheel hard over then forward in a hurry and racing down the hill with everyone watching to see if this fool would actually follow us, but no. The only other car on that road was coming directly at us, the headlights blinding me. Elton’s buyer/seller? Not important. It was the same ride all over again, a beeline to the main road then a hard right and gone. Nobody to pick up from the woods this time. Before we’re gone a quarter mile we’re all laughing and swearing, a car full of panty-waist muggers who just saved a fool’s life. I could only conjure on what would have happened to that idiot if he had tried his hail-fellow-partyerwell-met with someone genuinely dangerous. Knife in the guts and thrown down the hill, or you name it. What’s that old saying, about suffering a fool? We didn’t, and we did. Lucky for him. And not one of us made it to Career Mugger. We just didn’t have it in us.