excerpt from Damned Right
by Bayard Johnson
We turn right onto a shining boulevard that stretches endlessly. A few blocks ahead a crowd of men on horseback is swarming toward us through the slowgoing traffic. They range clear across the street, weaving through the honking and braking cars. The horsemen swear and slam cars with their nightsticks and shake the sticks at drivers who yell out their windows.
They're mounted cops. They're herding women. Behind comes a police bus scooping up the women. Some people stand still and the cops wash past and beyond them. But the women in hotpants and vinyl miniskirts and meshed stockings and garish faces know they're marked and they run. They hide and run again with the terror of horses in their big black-painted eyes.
Three run together down the centerline toward us. One brown one pink and one pasty white. This isn't right. I yell out the window, "Get in!" and reach across and unlatch the door. They pile in, stumbling over no seat and over each other. They're panting and yelling. One cries. The one on the bottom. I shout to shut up and stay down. It's easy to keep low with no seats. I throw the sleeping bag over them. They huddle, moaning and shaking. I tell them again to keep quiet and I switch a lever on the dash that shuts off the open headers and routes the exhaust through a fully baffled and muffled system. The throaty farting cough of the big engine drops to a deep distant rumble. Like a rumor of artillery or distant bombing. The posse cops come, you can hear them shouting and banging the sticks and the clop of the horses' hooves on pavement. One woman whimpers and another swears and punches her under the sleeping bag, and she sobs quietly. The cops are two cars ahead, riding toward us. One car ahead. They surround us. I wait to hear the sound of one of their sticks on the car. I'll have to jump out and drag him down off his horse. Don't go hitting the car. He doesn't.
We're past. We made it. We're free. The cars move, a little. We move too. Not much. The women come out from under the sleeping bag. Their makeup is smeared all over their hideous faces.
"You saved us," says one. They're not crying any more. They look back. Nobody laughs. They're too scared. I laugh, at something else.
"Where we going?" she says.
"This ain't the way."
"Maybe it's another freeway," says another.
"If it don't matter how come you want to find it?"
"I want to drive 200 miles an hour down the freeway."
Nobody speaks for a while.
"Let me know when," says one. "So I can get out."
"It's fuckin' weird," says another.
The third says something I can't understand. The dark brown one.
"She says she's staying, for the ride."
She says something else I can't understand.
"Says she wants to go 200 on the freeway."
They start giving me directions. I'm choking again, it's too crowded in the car. They keep looking back. I can't see what it is that's following us. I never have seen it. Finally I give up looking.
We're in hell. We're stuck on the surface streets. With the stoplights and the one-ways and the no-left-turns and no-U-turns and no-right-turns. It could almost make you wish you had a reverse gear. Almost. Mostly we're stuck with the gentles, the horseheads and the swines. Billions and billions of them. Streams and hordes and phalanxes of them. Rushour goes on and on here.
There's an attitude problem down here on the surface. I've always had trouble with surface-street people. On the freeway you can be a certain type of person. You can believe in certain things. Like purity. Like the way things ought to be. I'm only a little step beyond that. A logical step. I believe in the way things have to be. Not so with surface-street people. They grub along the ground all day with their noses too close to the dirt and the spit and the grime and the gutter. Angling and scamming for shady underhanded opportunities. Sneaking through yellow lights. Slipping in free rights and an occasional left after the light goes red. Fuck the lights. Keep your foot on the gas. Cars should be built with no brakes. There's a utopian world all right. But that doesn't appeal to surface-street people. They compromise. Calculate. Hey, there's no such thing as a calculated risk. There's risk and there's cowardice and there's nothing in between. There is no middle class. That's it. Sorry.
Sometimes we see pillars and overpasses and the promise of an upper, a smoother, a freer way. But there's no way on. Then suddenly there's an opening, widely beckoning like a concrete funnel. We swirl inward--only it turns out to be a causeway leading to an underground parking garage for a shopping mall. It sucks us down and spins us around and around, deeper down, always deeper, a swirling spiral vortex there's no getting out of. You have to resort to drastic measures, when you got no reverse gear and you can't back out the way you came in. The truth of labyrinths is that there might be no way out. It might go on forever. And if there's no minotaur it's that much worse. Because then there's no getting out, ever.
We follow a long winding tube down and down and down. There's no clue how deep, the levels are by color instead of number. I'm straining to breathe. I have that strange feeling of having been here before, not that long ago. Deja blue. We come to a fork in the tunnel. I stomp on the brake and we squeal to a stop. Momentum throws the women forward, yelling and wailing. I roll down the window, the poisonous dead air wafts in. I listen hard for any sound that might tell me which branch leads upward and out.
The echoes and reverberations of the women's wailing rattles down the corridors and clatters back to us, shattered and syncopated and exaggerated. The left path sounds clearer. I crank the wheel and slam down the gas and we peel out. The women cut loose with a new round of screaming and moaning. It bounces off the walls and baffled channels and comes back to me--I drive with my head out the window and the gas down hard, skidding the car around the spinning turns. The women's rage and terror keeps them howling and it becomes almost a chanting, singsong sound. It's a song of mourning and dread and its reverberated echo bouncing through the buried parking garage would have spooked and terrified us, if it weren't the only thing that guides us out. At each passageway the returning sound has a different texture, either an openness or a hollowed endlessness. It's obvious which way to turn.
We swerve and skid and barrel through the skinny passages, swirling up the twisting spirals. There's no easing up or backing off, I know the danger of confinement and constriction and suffocation. There's nothing more deadly. The helplessness, the unrighteousness, from a mute dumb victim's point of view. A passenger in the wrong plane, or ship, or body. I can't stand it. I have to be the one steering. Even so, who's really driving? How can you be sure? Suddenly we burst up, and out. We speed down the curving causeway, feeding us back onto the surface streets. Anything's better than that back there--even surface streets.
We stop at a red light and the solid wall of cross-traffic clogs the intersection ahead. The dead concrete air of the parking basement lies stagnant in my chest and I hang my head out the window, sucking in the night air. The light changes green without me noticing and the city bus beside us roars off, pumping black diesel exhaust in my open window and deep in my lungs. I choke and cough, nearly gagging. The cars behind and all around are honking. The women yell directions. It's a confusion of foreign languages and meaningless noise. I punch it, still gasping for air. We swerve through traffic. Who knows where? I barely care.
The women are talking. One says something about a Type A personality. About somebody being stressed out. One leans forward from behind, her arms resting on my shoulders. She murmurs in my ear, Do you want to fuck us? With her palms she rubs my shoulders and chest, and starts working down. I can feel the suction, the pull of the vacuum in her. Whores are hollow, they're weak and needful of something. Their souls are partially hollowed out and that's what's tugging on you, they need to fill up that void. Everybody does--me too. It wants to be brim-full. If you had two souls they'd suck one right out of you. I can't take any chances, I have to stay clear. Have to keep my distance. I shrug and push her hands away. "Not here," I say. "Not now." They know a place. Maybe they know a time. They give directions. I'm not listening. I drive. It's cold in the car. The whores have the sleeping bag. I think about the heater that we never installed when we built the car. We didn't want to clutter things up. Besides, it's not supposed to be cold here.
Along one side of the road stretches a strip of park. Hobos wander through the straight boles of tall palms or lie bundled and sleeping on the grass. It's like after a battle, where the dazed survivors wander and the dead randomly lie. We stop at a red light as the left-turning traffic streams onto the boulevard from a street butting in. I glance to the side. A ragged man sprawls sitting against a lamppost. His legs lie straight out before him, making a V. His head flops slightly back, his mouth fringed with gray half-beard hangs partly open and his eyes are closed. His ripped overcoat hangs unbuttoned and his dirty white dress shirt is ripped open down the front, baring his chest. A man and a woman crouch half-lying beside him, nursing on his wasted breasts.
Something catches in my throat and I cough and gasp, sucking for air. I swerve to the shoulder and jam us in nose-first against the curb. You don't do a slick parking job with no reverse gear. I climb out and walk across the street, leaving the door hanging open. The pavement is tilted a little and I walk part-sidelong, crabbing to follow straight toward where I'm looking. I barely hear the women calling from the car, and the traffic braking and swerving and honking as cars speed around me. I'm staring at the gray man leaning against the lamppost. I stop a dozen yards away. A searing pain shoots up into my throat from deep inside my chest. The man glances toward me with his eyes glazed over.
"It's happened," he murmurs.