We were at Jefferson and La Brea with our thumbs out. Some long-haired white guy in a meadow green 1969 Olds Ninety-Eight convertible pulled over. Booker’s lips, like Elvis’, had a permanent pucker. He turned pirouettes the length of the Olds like Fred Astaire then did a James Brown split outside the door.
In thick Clark Kent glasses, the driver was strange, he folded up the bench seat armrest and said, “Let’s all sit in front.” I rode shotgun. A clump of pine-scented air fresheners dangled from the rearview mirror, the top was down, and the driver was drunk. He held out a palm, “I’m Brad.”
Brad stopped to piss behind the Liquor Bank on Crenshaw Blvd. I slid into the driver’s seat, pushed the gas, and the car lurched forward, stopped, and lurched twice again before it took off. The open driver’s side door slammed against the jamb, the guy held his dick, raised his fist, his face grew long like the Joker in a Batman comic. He twisted up his mouth, “black bastards!” he said.
The mescaline had kicked in. A couple months back, a friend had let me drive his 55 Chevy station wagon a couple of times in the tiny Cressy Park parking lot. It was time to put those lessons to use, back to The Courts Public Housing Projects.
Behind the wheel, I had an unbridled sense of freedom and an opportunity to see what’s on the other side of the horizon. My body cells orgasmed, and, like a Ferris wheel, a thousand thoughts entered my brain at the same time. I picked one. School.
The school had been no friend to me. I’d had hard times there ever since the third grade. That’s when musty Raylon Skewlet snatched my book report on Harriet Tubman, scribbled his name on it, and passed it forward to Mrs. Fontenot. Tubman was a conductor on the Underground Railroad and my all-time favorite heroine. I had punched Raylon’s mouth, we fought. “Leland Otis Dunwitty, you're nothing but trouble," Fontenot had said. “You’re never going to finish school.” She twisted my ear between her knuckles and sent me for swats with the principal’s perforated oak paddle that sucked my ass into holes with each strike. Afterward, Raylon transferred to Special Education, but that was small consolation.
“Since when do you drive?” Booker said, his bloodshot eyes shielded somewhat by gold-framed Gandhi sunglasses. “You don’t even have a license.”
“You don’t know everything mothafucka,” I said, puffed-up. “I took lessons.” The wind rushed through my short tight fro. The leather-wrapped steering wheel maneuvered soft in one hand, my skinny elbow rested on the doorsill. I connected not only to the elements of nature but to the entire world. Warmth radiated through my body before a fluttery rolling feeling roiled my stomach.
We rumbled down Vernon Avenue to the freeway entrance. In eight seconds, the two-ton Rocket V-8 Turbo Hydromatic glided onto the 110 South at sixty miles per hour, where we become part of the busy, noisy, aggressive freeway.
Booker said, “Do you realize that we could just point the hood east and continue to the other side of Compton?” He extended his legs, feet floored under the brushed aluminum glove compartment, body bent at his hips; he lowered it towards his legs and took hold of his ankles to stretch his hamstrings again. “I gotta stay loose. Wait 'til you see me on T.V.—on stage next to Don Cornelius." He made a Swim dance move. “Do you want my autograph now?—it’ll cost you later.” Always a good dancer, at Cressy Park dance hops, he'd set the floor ablaze, and others would circle around to watch him when he did the Break, Watusi, and the Slauson Shuffle. Girls would throw their panties his way.
Mine were two left feet no matter how hard I practiced, but drugs fortified me like spinach did Popeye, gave me courage enough to muddle through the old Mashed Potatoes, the only dance I could halfway do and not feel embarrassed. My hook was straight front teeth that I flashed often. Connie, my muse, liked running her tongue across them. You have a cute smile, a few girls would say, or at least that's what I thought they meant.
"Kiss my ass, dude," I said. Fuck that, I’d no need for Booker’s autograph. Any day Texaco would call me in for gas station attendant work. Until then, I’d just stay high. “Autograph? You can’t even spell your name,” I said to Booker.
The Olds in my mind was like sailing a ship; I was empowered by the wind, overhead street signs, July sun, and a nose full of pine freshener.
Our heads bounced to The Jackson 5, I Want You Back, on AM radio. Tears rushed my eyes, “Damn, that’s a bad jam,” I said. I sang along, “Every street you walk on//I leave tear stains on the ground.” I swiped my eyes, all choked up. “You hear that shit, man?” My tears rained onto my red nylon dress shirt, oversized collars, and balloon sleeves.
Booker made a Jerk dance move, his fro blew wild in the wind.
The aftertaste of cheap wine clung to the back of my tongue. No doubt, my breath stank, which was a non-starter when it came to Connie. She was my go-to pussy, as dependable as the Caucasian life insurance salesman with white hair and grey suit who collected premiums from The Courts customers with religious zeal every third Monday of the month. “You got any Chiclets?” I said to Booker.
“It won’t help,” he said. He lay across the front seat on his back, pulled his knees to his chest, and lifted his legs straight up into the air. “Your breath smells like dog shit—maybe you can sell my autographed pictures.”
My jaw tightened. “Your mama liked it when she licked my teeth and sucked tongue.” The street dividing lines jumped onto the hood, moved and wiggled in unison. They separated at the same time before they stopped and formed two racing stripes.
Ron L. Dowell holds two Master’s degrees from California State University Long Beach. In June 2017, he received the UCLA Certificate in Fiction Writing. His short stories or poems have appeared in Oyster Rivers Pages, Rain on Rooftops Review, Writers Resist, Stories Through The Ages Baby Boomers Plus 2018 and in The Poeming Pidgeon. He is a 2018 PEN America Emerging Voices Fellow and a current member of the Community Literature Initiative Poetry Publishing Class. Ron recommends the Teen Intervention Program.