Riding in the Wasteland

"My friend HM works a few jobs.  His full name is Seth Henry Miller Grey, but everyone just calls him HM.  It sounds kind of like “Aych-um” the way we pronounce it.    He tends bar a few nights a week.  Some nights he hosts therapy sessions for other war vets.  He's produced some internet porn under a pseudonym, but that misadventure was shutdown when his director/cameraman/editor/talent wrangler was found out by the head of the university film department and was threatened with expulsion. He also works as a bondsman…and bounty hunter.

A bounty hunter. When I think of that term, I envision grizzled old cowboys, sleek and witty cinematic villainous, or guys who are just one step above being criminals themselves.  None are really accurate, and I’m sure there is as much variation as any other job. He tells me that his job is mostly boring and that he doesn’t “do all that stuff you see on that dumbshit tv show”. But he finds himself in a lot of... odd situations.  Like this morning.  The morning I told him I wanted to ride along.

I work in social services, and my job as a case manager isn’t that much different from his job as a "counselor" and collection agent.  We end up in many of the same neighborhoods -- part of the reason I asked to ride along with him.  My car is in the shop (the other reason), and I wanted to save a little gas money.  Today, we both have some rough areas on schedule, and we both feel a little better going in with someone else.

I should have known better when he asked me to bring my revolver.

“Oh, hey, pack your .357. You any good with that thing?” he says with his hard Arkansas-meets-Texas-meets-Tennessee twang.

I always carry, especially when in the badlands of New Orleans, and I’m a pretty decent shot.  I went to the range with my brother a few weeks ago.  At “realistic” handgun ranges, I’m a pretty good shooter.  Now, there’s this pseudo, urban legend FBI report that supposedly states that most incidents involving shootings and handguns in urban areas happen within a ten-foot area.  I don’t know how accurate that claim is or what the data looks like, but I can believe it.  With a few exceptions, most of the shooting stories I hear about in Nola involve close-range, ambush-type attacks.  And that’s about what I consider realistic; anything over 10-or-so feet, I’m going to haul ass outta Dodge, quick.

So, at a “realistic” range, I can put five shots in an area that could be covered by a coffee cup without using my sights.  It’s not too difficult. But this is just shooting; it’s not gunfighting.  It’s a new ball game keeping your hand steady when you’re up against a living target that might be shooting back. So I hear anyway.

In any case, I’m not bad putting bullets on target, and I’m comfortable carrying. But I’ve never needed to draw down in a life-or-death situation, and having someone specifically request that I’m armed…it puts my nerves in a funny state of affairs.

HM pulls up in front of my house around 6:15.  His jeep is still covered in mud from his last time off-roading, but other than that it looks like it could withstand a direct hit from an RPG. He loves this car.  His ex wife tried to take it in the divorce.  “She wants half, she’ll get half.  I got a friend with a miter saw that’ll cut this thing right in half, down to the millimeter.  I’d rather see it scrap than her driving that fuckhead or her miserable lil dog around in it.”  It never came to that.  She took just about everything else, but he kept the jeep and put months of love, metal, and grease into it. Reinforced roll bar, independent suspension, 4-wheel-drive, mud tires, and all sorts of other stuff that I can never remember (I’ve occasionally delved into “gun nut”, but I’ve never been a gear head).  I climb in as he’s clearing some paperwork and a grocery bag full of Red Bull and cigarettes off the seat.

“Hey, mornin, man. Let’s get some coffee. Play DJ for a bit while I finish mappin our course out.”

I start cycling through some CDs and MP3s, and we head out around 6:22.  HM likes to get people in the morning, when they’re tired and sluggish.  Sometimes they’re still asleep or they’ve just eaten.  Either way, they are less likely to run.  They are less likely to, as he says, “have their nuts up or get too clever”.

Our morning is pretty uneventful (this job’s boring, remember).  We spend most of the time driving around the worst neighborhoods in this city, the areas that might have been permanently lost to Katrina, or getting cups of coffee and checking out the young hipster and college girls on Magazine St. We make a stop at the Rue coffee shop on Magazine St., and while I take care of my cream and sugar, HM manages to get a date with a barista and a customer.  I just do a bit of window-shopping.  We debate black vs white coffee.  We eat a bacon-eggs-grits breakfast at Slim Goodies and try to eavesdrop on congressman Bill “Cold Cash” Jefferson who’s sitting at the table next to us. 

Back in the jeep, we continue to cruise.  We follow a column of smoke to a blazing house near Napoleon and Carrollton. As we pass the police and firemen in the street, bits of ash fall like dirty snow all across the windshield. We can feel the heat through the windows.  We roll them down, and light a few cigarettes.  A cop barks at us to move on.  Earlier today, we saw two cops pull a man out of a gunmetal grey Nissan.  One cop pushed the guy’s head to the hood with the barrel of his Glock.  We didn’t even look at the officer; we just moved on. 

Our soundtrack for the entire morning has been most Pantera’s “Far Beyond Driven” and the wail of police sirens.  I put on a mix of the Sundays, much to his chagrin. I only get out one song, but it’s fitting. “Feel this city inside me. Feel this city define me.  Leave this city behind me.” Harriet Wheeler…her voice is so ethereal and soothing that I forget where I am and barely notice the jeep slow to a halt. HM has his eyes set dead ahead, fixed on a slate-grey double down the street.

HM talks to me without taking his eyes off the house. “Put that new Tomahawk on…the ‘skin-walker’ song.  I need you to get your head back here for a few.”

“I haven’t gone anywhere.  If anything, I am reminding myself exactly where I am.” I reply.

“Well, that don’t matter right now.  Just back me up.  You don’t have to say anything, just look serious.  Not angry.  Just serious.  Look like you wanna get this over so you can go back home and fight with the wife before trying to go back to sleep.”  He takes a huge plug of chewing tobacco out of his mouth and spits out the window.

“I don’t think that will be too much trouble.”

He nods.  “Put your blazer on, and stick your gun into the pocket.  Let’s go.”

I glance at him. “Where we goin?”

He looks back with a grin and just says, “We’ll find out when we get there.”
Just as street signs are missing all over this town, so too are the numbers on houses.  We took our best guess, and HM rapped on the door with his swollen knuckles.  A watery-eyed, mouth-breathing kid with a look of MR of about 16 answered the door. He had on tighty whitey briefs, and to my extreme discomfort, he was standing a few feet above us so that his groin was almost eye level with us.  He had a raging erection, pointing right at my face.  HM couldn’t hold his laugh back once it started.  The more he tried to hold it in, the worse it got.  He finally threw his hands in front of his face and turned back towards the street.

I turned around, “What the fuck, man?!”

“No, sorry, man.  It mus be nex’ door.”

We both turned toward the other half of the shotgun, and the door was already opening.  I couldn’t see through the threshold, but HM had stopped laughing.  His face looked pretty serious and paled a little bit. My stomach dropped and I could almost taste bacon and eggs planning a revolt.
You ever been in a car accident?  Doesn’t have to be anything too grand.  Even a fender bender will do.  You’re driving along all calm and collected.  You are practically meditating behind the wheel.  Then BAM!  Everything slows down to an impossible time.  Your organs feel like they are suspended in jelly.  You can actually feel the surge of adrenaline as it passes though your blood vessels.
You feel about the same thing when somebody fires a gun at you.
I’m down on the ground in rainwater and piss, scrambling frantically away from the front steps.  I hear people shouting all around me, but I can’t make out the words.  I don’t think I can breathe.  I think of a woman’s face, looking at me longingly.  The image is inappropriate and horribly unrealistic security blanket.  I wish I were holding her in her bed right now under the soft blue glow of light radiating from walls painted white.  Instead, I can hear the guns bark and the bullets whizz overhead.  All this as I try to will my body into the wet ground alongside the old Mazda on the broken remnants of a driveway.

HM calls out from somewhere hundreds of miles away in a guttural bark.  “We’re not fucking cops…we just want to talk!”  His voice sounds possessed and like it’s been filtered through an old record player at a low RPM. Another pair of deafeningly loud shots bangs out, and the air screams a hiss as it’s pulled into the vortex behind the speeding, spiraling lead. With the house fire a few blocks away, there are enough cops around, but with all the racket of sirens and people, I wouldn’t be surprised if no one heard the barks from the guns, even though it sounds like tank fire this close to me.  I could have been in the office today.

 “OK, OK, fuck talking!  We just wanna go back to the car and leave!!”  HM is laughing like a movie villain who’s enjoying his spiral into manic depravity.  He fires a quick set of shots at the front door.  His gun roars like a Howitzer fired by Thor.  His hollow-point .44 mag rounds explode into the house and tear enormous, fist-sized chunks from the front steps and doorframe. I have no idea who is in the house; I can’t see anyone.  I’m not sure if HM is shooting at someone or just letting loose for the hell of it.

My own gun is somehow in my hand, and it might as well weigh a ton.  I feel like it could drop from my hand at any moment.  My grip feels weak, but I clutch it like a protective talisman.  Each raindrop that strikes my face feels like an open hand slap. I could age twenty years in the next fifteen seconds, and I wouldn’t notice.  I raise my face, fearing that it could get wiped off my skull with less effort than it takes to draw a breath.  I crawl on my belly towards the tires of the jeep.  A home is still burning somewhere.  I need to let my cat back in.  My parking tickets are going to go up by $40 each if I don’t pay them by Thursday.
“Hey, man!! You ok?!!” HM calls out to me.

“Yeah, I’m ok…I pissed my pants.”

There is a slight pause. 

“I’m gonna toss you my keys.  Start her up so we can get out of here.  I’ll cover you.  Keep your head down.  Got it?”

“Yeah, man.  I got it.  Ready.”  My voice doesn’t sound like my own; it sounds like my father’s voice talking to my playground football coaches when I was little – too deep and bigger than my body feels.

There is no movement or sound from the front door.  In all likeliness, the guy has probably run out the back door.  HM yells out "CHECKING", and I respond the same.  His keys land in the puddle next to me.  I grab them and crawl through the passenger door and onto the driver seat. HM lets off two more shots.  Inside the car, I realize that I can’t hear anything out of my left ear.  When that front door opened, I had turned my face back towards the gunman's loaded .357 snub.  I dove right almost immediately, and that first shot could have easily taken my head off.  I’m lucky to only be deaf.  I think that’s when I pissed myself.  As the adrenaline levels out, I realized I jammed a few fingers and sprained my elbow when I dove off the stoop.  I fumble with the keys, drop them once, then start the jeep and pull up behind the Pontiac HM is crouching behind.  I’m laid across the seat, using my hands to shift, push the peddles, and steer.  I could not do this again if paid, and I will never know where this ability came from.  I grab the wheel with my left hand and pull myself across the slick pleather seats; the rainwater soaking my clothes makes the slide easy.  I pull myself upright in the driver’s seat.  HM crawls in, and with my head still tucked almost beneath the dashboard, I floor it down the street.

I drive about five blocks and turn right.  I go about three more blocks, and HM says “Pull over.”  He opens the door and vomits onto the street.  I’d been waiting to do the same, and I open my door and let loose.
“You ok?” I croak.

“Yeah, you?”

“I’m alright. I think I broke some fingers.”  My right hand is throbbing and both are trembling like I’m detoxing.

We sit on the side of the street for a few minutes.  HM takes a bottle of Jameson from the back seat and has a long pull.  I smoke a cigarette and puke once more.  Then I eat a handful of vicodin and wrap my fingers in medical tape. HM hands me a clean bar rag to wipe my face.  We sit with our legs hanging out the jeep for a few minutes, and then I let HM have the driver’s seat.  He glances at the seat briefly, makes a face, then shrugs with an “Aw fuck it” as he climbs in.

“I guess we should we report this?” I ask.

“Yeah.  I will. Later.”  He puts in a fresh plug of dip and stares off into nowhere.  “I gotta let Blake know bout this at least, and he’ll get some cops out here.  Guy’s prolly long gone, at least for now.  And fuck...I shot my gun. A lot. Even reloaded twice. Gotta report that.” He spits.  “But later.  You ready to call it a day?”

“Uh, yeah.  Can we get fucked up now?”

“I’m already on that.” He says, taking another pull of whiskey. “Them vicodin wasn’t a good start for ya?”

“I’m thinking a ‘bar’ would be a good idea…you got any Xanax?”

“Yeah, I got some a them lil purple footballs in the glove compartment… the pill bottle without the label.” He spits again.

With a pill between my lips, I fish for my water bottle and ask, “You think we did any good today?”

“Sure. I mean, I guess. But hell man, what’s good an’ bad here?  Ain’t that black and white. But yeah. Small victories man.  An’ fuck, we’re still alive. That always counts fer somethin.”

I'm smile, weakly, “Yeah. I feel it more now than I have in months.”

“Good. Ready to roll?”

 “Yep,” I say, “But I’m gonna need some new pants."

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