Somebody said he was a stone hauler with a broken heart. Whoever he was he drove up to Eagle Mountain the night before Thanksgiving with a quart of Wild Turkey and a .357 Magnum. The sheriff found him around sunup. By noon the news was all over town.
We were shooting pool when the wrecker hauled the dead man’s car into the Atlantic station. From across the street it looked ordinary enough, a faded green Mercury with a primered rear end. Old George backed her into a slot by the diesel pump then sat in the cab writing on a clipboard.
“That’s it,” Ray threw down his cue and hit the door. I could hear him calling from the porch. The shitkicker twang he used just for me.
“You boys clear off now,” George scowled when he saw us coming. “Ain’t nothing for you to see here.”
“Cunt hear you Georgie-boy,” Ray cupped a hand to his ear. “Speak a titty bit louder.”
George’s standard comeback, a drawling string of curses seemed to catch somewhere in his throat. Ray gave him the “fuck you” look, turning sideways then backward to hold the old man’s eyes. In the glare of the sun he moved just like a movie star.
“Well go ahead then. Get a belly-full,” George shouted after us.
I didn’t much like the sound of that. Old George could get the best of the local boys and it seemed we were always walking right into it. The Merc looked sharp sitting in that row of junkers. Ray walked straight up to it and ran a hand over the fender. I don’t know what it was that made me follow. I could have let him go like I usually do when he starts acting crazy. Whatever it was ran out about ten yards short and I stood by the diesel pump with my hands in my pockets. Ray crouched to look inside.
“Jesus, what a mess! Somebody better hose it out before it gets ripe.”
“Do you think it hurt?” I asked lamely.
“Sheeeiiit! He didn’t feel a thing. Not with his motherfucking brains splattered on the roof. Look for yourself.”
I knew Ray would dog me for the rest of my life, but I couldn’t budge.
“What is it Jerome? A little too gruesome for you? Well at least take a look at this,” he slapped his hand on the roof. “Ain’t even messy, I promise.”
As I closed the distance I had vision of my house set up for Thanksgiving, my mother and Ginny in the kitchen wondering where I could be. Fixing my eyes above the windows I watched Ray reach over and poke his finger through the bullet hole.
“That old boy wasn’t taking any chances,” he grinned.
“Go on you two,” George called from the wrecker. “This ain’t no goddam freak show.”
“I’ll give you $200 for it,” Ray shouted over his shoulder, “as is”.
George set his clipboard on the dash and pushed back the bill of his hat. “Boy, I believe there’s something wrong with you.”
“$200. And a case of that rotgut you favor.”
George just shook his head. “That car don’t belong to me and the owner’s in no shape to sell.”
“Give me the keys, George. Let me take her for a spin.”
The old man looked at the keys for a moment then tossed them our way. “You always was a mouthy bastard,” he snorted. “But even you ain’t that crazy.
George was way off on that. Ray started for the keys, but I was closer and beat him to it. He kept coming so I backpedaled, holding the keys behind my back.
“Let me have them Jerome.”
“You can’t do this, Ray. Why is it you gotta be the craziest fool around?”
“Jerome?” he held out his hand.
“I won’t let you do it. THE MAN’S BRAINS ARE ALL OVER!”
“Give me the keys,” he hissed.
So I did.
“I was only kidding about the mess,” he shrugged. “That old slug must’ve passed right through,” he shrugged again. “It happens sometimes. Little bitty hole no bigger than my finger.”
“Come on Jer,” he worked the key in the lock and swung the door open. “You think I’d get in this thing if that wasn’t the truth?”
My head screamed don’t look but my eyes wouldn’t listen. A splash of crimson over the rear windows, something pink caked against the windshield. Ray nearly peed himself laughing at me.
He bought the car from the dead man’s brother for a hundred, cash. None of us would ride in it and folks tended to avoid Ray after that. Didn’t bother him though. Ray’s kind of crazy wasn’t for getting attention. He was crazy all by himself.
A few months later I saw him at the Burger Barn with a girl from town. She was tough and sexy and you could tell right away she knew all about the Mercury. Ray didn’t look right. He’d lost some weight and his eyes were glassy like he needed sleep. I couldn’t help wondering if the car was getting to him. Not that I’m superstitious, but that Merc had taken one man down the road to hell. A thing like that can work on you.
“Ever fix that hole in the roof?” I asked him.
Ray gave me a spacey smile. “I decided to leave it the way it is. Something to remember him by.”
“What about when it rains?”
He leaned closer and slipped a cigarette from my shirt pocket.
“I just stick a cork in it.”
There was a rumor he’d gone to California. Boyd Garrison said he’d seen him and the girl at a truck stop in Hershey. Whatever Ray was doing he wasn’t doing it here. A lot happened in that time, none of it good. Just before Christmas I got laid off at the mill and not long after me and Ginny had to move in with her folks. Then my boy Junior came down with the measles and now the doctor says he may never hear again. There were other troubles but those are the main ones. I’d think of Ray every so often, but mostly he was the last thing on my mind.
Then one night I saw the Mercury pull out of the liquor store parking lot. One of the headlights was smashed and he was trailing a thick cloud of smoke. Wasn’t like Ray to let a ride go like that and I took it as a bad sign. I pretended not to see him as he came my way and was relieved when he passed me by. I think about that a lot these days. Even though he’d gone through some changes he was still a friend. I knew him all my life. A friend would have waved him down and seen what kind of shape he was in. I play it back in my mind and I’m ashamed. Not to say I feel responsible for what happened, but I learned something about myself I’d rather not know.
Word got around about Ray. Someone saw him walking naked down River Road. Joe Francis said Ray came to his house one night and sat on his porch mumbling to himself until the sun came up. Never even knocked to see who was home.
The thing about this town, if you believe half of what you hear you’ll know more than you need to.
It was me who found him up on Eagle Mountain. I was out hunting pheasant when I saw the Mercury wedged between two pines. I figure it was probably dark when he turned off the switchback and just let that car roll as far as it would take him. A few days later old George stopped by with a letter they found in the glove compartment, Ray’s last will and testament. He left a thousand dollars and his TV set to his mother in Millville. He left the Mercury to me.
Sometimes when Ginny and I are going at it or the kids are driving me nuts, I come out here behind the barn and sit in it. The motor’s shot but the radio still works when I remember to charge the battery. You’d be surprised what you can pick up on a clear night. The in-laws raised hell at first, but lately they like it better when I’m not around.
It’s not like I’m sitting in a bar all night or smoking crack. Just kicking back with the radio on, staring at stars through those two bullet holes.