It’s about a mile down on the dark side of Route 88.
There was a time when courtesy and winning ways went out of style, when it was good to be bad, when you cultivated decadence like a taste. We were all dangerous characters then. We wore torn-up leather jackets, slouched around with toothpicks in our mouths, sniffed glue and ether and what somebody claimed was cocaine. When we wheeled our parents’ whining station wagons out into the street, we left a patch of rubber half a block long. We drank gin and grape juice. Tango, Thunderbird and Bali Hai. We were nineteen. We were bad. We read Andrè Gide and struck elaborate poses to show that we didn’t give a shit about anything. At night, we went up to Greasy Lake.
Through the center of town, up the strip, past the housing developments and shopping malls, streetlights giving way to the thin streaming illumination of the headlights, trees crowding the asphalt in a black unbroken wall: that was the way out to Greasy Lake. The Indians had called it Wakan, a reference to the clarity of its waters. Now it was fetid and murky, the mud banks glittering with broken glass and strewn beer cans and the charred remains of bonfires. There was a single ravaged island a hundred yards from shore, so stripped of vegetation it looked as if the Air Force had strafed it. We went up to the lake because everyone went there, because we wanted to snuff the rich scent of possibility on the breeze, watch a girl take off her clothes and plunge into the festering murk, drink beer, smoke pot, howl at the stars, savor the incongruous full-throated roar of rock and roll against the primeval susurrus of frogs and crickets. This was nature.
I was there one night, late, in the company of two dangerous characters. Digby wore a gold star in his right ear and allowed his father to pay his tuition at Cornell; Jeff was thinking of quitting school to become a painter/musician/head-shop proprietor. They were both expert in the social graces, quick with a sneer, able to manage a Ford with lousy shocks over a rutted and gutted blacktop road at eighty-five while rolling a joint as compact as a tootsie-pop stick. They could lounge against a bank of booming speakers and trade “man’s’’ with the best of them or roll out across the dance floor as if their joints worked on bearings. They were slick and quick and they wore their mirror shades at breakfast and dinner, in the shower, in closets and caves. In short, they were bad.
I drove. Digby pounded the dashboard and shouted along with Toots & the Maytals while Jeff hung his head out the window and streaked the side of my mother’s Bel Air with vomit. It was early June, the air soft as a hand on your cheek, the third night of summer vacation. The first two nights we’d been out till dawn, looking for something we never found. On this, the third night, we’d cruised the strip sixty-seven times, been in and out of every bar and club we could think of in a twenty-mile radius, stopped twice for bucket chicken and forty-cent hamburgers, debated going to a party at the house of a girl Jeff’s sister knew, and chucked two dozen raw eggs at mailboxes and hitchhikers. It was two A.M., the bars were closing. There was nothing to do but take a bottle of lemon-flavored gin up to Greasy Lake.
The taillights of a single car winked at us as we swung into the dirt lot with its tufts of weed and washboard corrugations: 57 Chevy, mint, metallic blue. On the far side of the lot, like the exoskeleton of some gaunt chrome insect, a chopper leaned against its kickstand. And that was it for excitement: some junkie half-wit biker and a car freak pumping his girlfriend. Whatever it was we were looking for, we weren’t about to find it at Greasy Lake. Not that night.
But then all of a sudden Digby was fighting for the wheel. “Hey, that’s Tony Lovett’s car! Hey!” he shouted, while I stabbed at the brake pedal and the Bel Air nosed up to the gleaming bumper of the parked Chevy. Digby leaned on the horn, laughing, and instructed me to put my brights on. I flicked on the brights. This was hilarious. A joke. Tony would experience premature withdrawal and expect to be confronted by grim-looking state troopers with flashlights. We hit the horn, strobed the lights and then jumped out of the car to press our witty faces to Tony’s windows: for all we knew we might even catch a glimpse of some little fox’s tit, and then we could slap backs with red-faced Tony, rough-house a little, and go on to new heights of adventure and daring.
The first mistake, the one that opened the whole floodgate, was losing my grip on the keys. In the excitement, leaping from the car with the gin in one hand and a roach clip in the other, I spilled them in the grass—in the dark, dank, mysterious nighttime grass of Greasy Lake. This was a tactical error, as damaging and irreversible in its way as Westmoreland’s decision to dig in at Khe Sanh. I felt it like a jab of intuition, and I stopped there by the open door, peering vaguely into the night that puddled up round my feet.
The second mistake—and this was inextricably bound up with the first—was in identifying the car as Tony Lovett’s. Even before the very bad character in greasy jeans and engineer boots ripped out of the driver’s door, I began to realize that this chrome blue was much lighter than the robin’s egg of Tony’s car and that Tony’s car didn’t have rear-mounted speakers. Judging from their expressions, Digby and Jeff were privately groping toward the same inevitable and unsettling conclusion that I was.
In any case, there was no reasoning with this bad greasy character—clearly he was a man of action. The first lusty Rockettes’ kick of his steel-toed boot caught me under the chin, chipped my favorite tooth and left me sprawled in the dirt. Like a fool, I’d gone down on one knee to comb the stiff hacked grass for the keys, my mind making connections in the most dragged-out, testudinal way, knowing that things had gone wrong, that I was in a lot of trouble, and that the lost ignition key was my grail and my salvation. The three or four succeeding blows were mainly absorbed by my right buttock and the tough piece of bone at the base of my spine.
Meanwhile, Digby vaulted the kissing bumpers and delivered a savage kung fu blow to the greasy character’s collarbone. Digby had just finished a course in martial arts for phys. ed. credit and had spent the better part of the past two nights telling us apocryphal tales of Bruce Lee types and of the raw power invested in lightning blows shot from coiled wrists, ankles and elbows. The greasy character was unimpressed. He merely backed off a step, his face like a Toltec mask, and laid Digby out with a single whistling roundhouse blow. .. but by now jeff had got into the act, and I was beginning to extricate myself from the dirt, a tinny compound of shock, rage and impotence wadded in my throat.
Jeff was on the guy’s back, biting at his ear. Digby was on the ground, cursing. I went for the tire iron I kept under the driver’s seat. I kept it there because bad characters always keep tire irons under the driver’s seat, for just such an occasion as this. Never mind that I hadn’t been involved in a fight since sixth grade when a kid with a sleepy eye and two streams of mucus depending from his nostrils hit me in the knee with a Louisville slugger, never mind that I’d touched the tire iron exactly twice before, to change tires: it was there. And I went for it.